W. E. B. Du Bois and Irving Babbitt are not frequently associated with each other. Du Bois’s thought has exerted its influence most profoundly on the American political left. Irving Babbitt, on the other hand, was a conservative thinker whose influence extends throughout twentieth century conservatism. In spite of their obvious differences, however, Du Bois and Babbitt shared in common a focus upon the necessity of liberal education for the development of individuals, and, particularly, leaders, who would preserve and perpetuate culture.
With these ends in mind, Du Bois introduced his idea of a “Talented Tenth” who were fit to receive the highest levels of training and education and, afterwards, to lead their respective communities. The liberal education this Talented Tenth would receive would prepare them “by study and thought and an appeal to the rich experience of the past” to assume the mantle of leadership in the confrontation of the mass of people with the “inevitable problems of civilization.” For that purpose, “the foundations of knowledge . . . must be sunk deeper in the college and university if we would build a solid, permanent structure.”
Similarly, Babbitt urged colleges to focus in their curriculum upon those books which are expressive of “what is permanent in human nature” so that the student may draw upon the wisdom of the past in the confrontation with contemporary problems. As in the thought of Du Bois, this education in the “sifted experience of generations” is linked in Babbitt’s thought to a notion of an educated elite particularly fit for leadership. In his Democracy and Leadership, Babbitt argues in favor of an “aristocratic principle” which alone can act as a “check to the evils of an unlimited democracy.”
Babbitt and Du Bois also, however, depart from each other in some substantial ways in their vision of this liberally-educated aristocracy. “The ascent of rare merit from the lower to the higher levels of society,” writes Babbitt, “should . . . always be left open.” Citing the British Enlightenment conservative Edmund Burke, Babbitt asserts that men should be judged “not by their hereditary rank, but by their personal achievement.” Neither Burke nor Babbitt, however, provides any program by which those at the lowest levels of society should be able to rise to the top, while acknowledging that “it is hard for the manual worker to acquire such virtue and wisdom for the reason that he lacks the necessary leisure.” Babbitt adds, in addition, that those men of “merit” who would rise from the lower levels of society to the higher must “be required to pass through a severe probation,” providing no indication to why this should be so or, if it is to be so, why it should not be so for the sons of those already at the top of society.
As Du Bois points out in his Dusk of Dawn, however, those with power are never eager to renounce it nor even to share it. And, although “many assume that an upper social class maintains its status mainly by reason of its superior culture,” more often than not the upper class is able to “maintain its status because of its wealth and political power and in that case its ranks can be successfully invaded only by the wealthy.” It is, therefore, necessary to secure some measure of “equality of opportunity” for all so that Babbitt’s imagined manual worker has the ability to rise in the first place.
In this way, Du Bois’s thought offers a more complete approach than Babbitt’s because Du Bois’s thought is better grounded in the realities that average individuals face. While Babbitt imagines a theoretical manual worker who might, through some intensive trial of his ability, be able some day to rise, Du Bois, on the ground, sees the many lives of potential and possibility that have been crushed through the failure of those already on top to offer opportunity to those below. In Dusk of Dawn, he records the words of a mother in Harlem, lamenting that her otherwise “bright” child is forced to attend the “Harlem schools” which are filled with “dirt, noise, bad manners, filthy tales, no discipline, over-crowded” and where “the teachers aren’t half trying.” Even more poignant is the story of Josie in the Souls of Black Folk. While searching for a job as a schoolteacher in rural Tennessee during his summer break from his studies at Fisk University, Du Bois met and briefly taught this twenty-year-old woman who, he says, “longed to learn” and to rise, but had been denied the opportunity because of the circumstances into which she had been born. Years later, when Du Bois returned to the small town he had taught in, he found that Josie had died young without ever leaving. Babbitt’s failure to take account of Josie and those like her is a damning error of omission in his thought which the thought of Du Bois is able to obviate.