w.e.b. dubois

Quest of the Silver Fleece


W. E. B. Du Bois and Irving Babbitt

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.

Book Review: Three Negro Classics by John Hope Franklin (ed.)

Contained in this book are three essential works for those interested in the history in the history of African-Americans and even of the United States as a whole, as the African-American experience is one quite important aspect of the wider American experience. Each of these is a great book in its own right; the effect of reading the three successively, all combined in a single volume, is tremendous. Each tells the story, from a unique perspective, of one of the greatest injustices in the history of the world, namely, the enslavement and subsequent marginalization of millions of people because of the color of their skin.

The book begins with Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery, his autobiography. He begins by recalling his earliest childhood memories as a slave in the Deep South as well as the long-awaited day of emancipation. He then discusses his rise from a slave boy to his international fame and leadership of a leading institution of higher learning for African-Americans, through the mentorship of General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, whom he adoringly refers to as “General Armstrong” throughout this book. Along the way, Washington seeks to explain and justify his preference for industrial training over liberal education for African-Americans. While I could not disagree with him more on that subject, it is nonetheless a fascinating insight into his intentions and the philosophy behind them.

W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk forms the centerpiece of the book, fitting, not only because it comes midway between the two chronologically, but because it is thematically a point of connection between both of the other works contained in this volume, completing Washington’s work and setting the stage for Johnson’s. It is also fitting, I believe, because it is the standout best of the three works featured here. Du Bois, a Northern black born into freedom, raised in a mostly white small town in Massachusetts, and granted a quality liberal education which culminated in post-graduate work at Harvard University, provides the insight that only he could provide as a simultaneously insider and outsider. As a well-educated Northerner, he saw the blacks of the South as an outsider would see them; as a black man who dared to venture into the Jim Crow South, however, he knew their suffering intimately and at firsthand. The insight he provides into a people group as yet unexplored makes this one of the greatest books not only of African-American literature, nor even of American literature, but of the literature of the world.

Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man caps off this volume with the story of a man with a white father and a mulatto mother who was able to pass himself off nearly everywhere he went as a white man. The result is a lifetime of confusion and hesitation, wondering at the duality into which he had been placed by his genetics, in which he could choose, as his conscience called him to do, to identify with the oppressed minority with whom he had a genetic and cultural connection through his mother, or, as his natural human desire for comfort and safety called him to do, identify with that aspect of his heritage granted him especially through his father. It is the story of a man ripped apart by the same policies which ripped the United States apart for a century, the malignant legacy of which still lingers in the air today.

Historical causation

In his discussion of the factors in historical causation, Christopher Dawson identified four primary factors, “(1) race, i.e., the genetic factor; (2) environment, i.e., the geographic factor; (3) function or occupation, i.e., the economic factor,” and, finally, (4) “thought, or the psychological factor.” Each of these factors has received some special emphasis at some epoch in the history of thought on historical causation. It is Dawson’s unique contribution to the field of thought on historical causation, however, to highlight the psychological factor as the decisive factor in the movements of history, as the human factor which unites and, in a sense, governs and directs the others.

Race, or the genetic factor, is the factor of historical causation which has received the greatest emphasis in the modern era, though it is by no means unique to the modern era. Aristotle, for example, says of “the poets” that “they thought that the barbarian and the slave were by nature one.” It was in the modern era, however, that race came to be identified by certain thinkers as the most central aspect of historical causation. The most extreme forms of the position which places race as the central determinative factor in historical causation have largely collapsed under the weight of the atrocities these theories have led to. For example, Alexander H. Stephen’s theory of the natural servility of those of African descent became an ex post facto justification for the existence of race-based chattel slavery in the American South. The most infamous example is the theory, generally associated with the Nazis but adopted more widely by eugenicists of various political stripes near the turn of the 20th century, of a malignancy transmitted via the blood of particular ethnic groups, an idea which counts the Holocaust among its consequences. Although undue focus upon the genetic factor in historical causation has largely been discredited through its own horrendous consequences, this theory has returned with renewed vigor in unexpected places, as among those who argue that an innate predisposition toward certain sexual behaviors implies the necessity of social acceptance of said behaviors.

A panicked reaction against the consequences of the racialist theory of historical causation has led to a renewed emphasis upon the two other material factors, the geographic and the economic. The geographic factor undoubtedly has the longest pedigree of the two. In his History, for example, Herodotus, writing in the 5th century BC, linked the origins of Egyptian culture, including their language and religion, to the geography of the land they inhabited and its environment. One of the most popular of the modern reiterations of this ancient idea of geographic determinism is that of Jared Diamond in his Guns, Germs, and Steel. In his 1997 book and eponymous 2005 television documentary series, Diamond sets out to answer a question put to him by a native of New Guinea, though perhaps more succinctly articulated nearly a century prior by W. E. B. Du Bois in his The Souls of Black Folk, “Why has civilization flourished in Europe, and flickered, flamed, and died in Africa?” In the wake of the racialist ideologies of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Diamond merely frantically replaces one set of material factors (genes) with another (geography), arguing eloquently but not persuasively for an exclusion of the human factor from the central position.

The economic factor of historical causation is of a decidedly modern origin. Its origins are contemporaneous with the rise of race to prominence as the central factor in historical causation. Unlike race, however, the economic factor has maintained its popularity as a material explanation for historical causation to the present day. Its most well-known and vociferous exponent, Karl Marx, argued that “the life-process of society … is based on the process of material production.” Having fixed economics as the final definitive factor in historical causation, Marx proceeded to dismiss all other aspects of a society, including its religious and political systems, insisting that far from possessing any causative or explanatory power they themselves were merely the derivative products of the economic factor. Marx’s explanation of all history through economic factors proved convincing enough to win over a great many of the leading intellectuals of the 20th century, including W. E. B. Du Bois, who, fairly late in his life, attempted to answer his question through applying the Marxist theory of material dialectic to race relations in the modern world.

Like the racial and geographic theories, however, Marx’s theory of economic causation in history reduces history to the merely material. Positing race, geography, or economy as the central causative factor in history displaces human life and its unique features, rational thought and spiritual insight, from their due place of centrality. This reduction to the merely material is largely a modern phenomenon. Even among those ancient thinkers who identified material factors of causation, there was rarely an outright exclusion of the human factor. Plato, for example, in his Laws, placed what is perhaps an undue emphasis on the geographic factor in his contention that a city near a “sea, and well provided with harbours, and an importing rather than a producing country” requires “some mighty saviour … and lawgivers more than mortal, if … [it] were ever to have a chance of preserving … [itself] from degeneracy and discordance of manners.” Yet even in this statement of the great effect of the geographic factor upon a state, Plato evinces a belief in the human factor of a “mighty saviour” and “lawgivers more than mortal” as the most decisive factor in the shaping of a people’s history.

It is precisely such great men whom Christopher Dawson pointed to as the most important factor in historical causation, reminding the modern world that it is not so much man who is subject to the material factors of race, geography, and economy, as it is man who works within the confines of these factors to reshape them and create new and great cultures. “Behind every civilization there is a vision,” he writes in his Progress and Religion, “a vision which may be the unconscious fruit of ages of common thought and action, or which may have sprung from the sudden illumination of a great prophet or thinker.” Underlying historical causation, says Dawson, creating and giving impulse to material factors is the human factor. Behind every great movement in history one will not find, if followed to its roots, a gene, a mountain, or an exchange of goods. Instead, one will discover the human will.

Book Review: The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois

Du Bois is perhaps the greatest and most under-read African-American voice of the 20th century. What he offers here is an analysis of race in the United States that remains as relevant now, more than a hundred years hence, as when it was first written in 1903. His prescription to remedying the racial divide and gap in achievement between African-Americans and European-Americans is a combination of political involvement and higher education which will result in African-Americans building up a cultural heritage from the primitive roots already in place while become at once part of the mainstream of American life.

Access to a liberal education for African-Americans is one of the most powerful points that Du Bois stresses, and it is one that has, unfortunately, not improved much since this book was written. In fact, it has become more difficult not only for African-Americans to receive a liberal education, but for all Americans to receive such an education. The current focus on “STEM” and “college and career readiness” in America’s public schools has only served to bolster the Book T. Washington-model of technical training over the Du Bois model of an education for thinkers and leaders.

The result is that all culture, including African-American culture, has been degraded. Not only does a black school child not have access to Shakespeare; he often no longer has access to the treasures of his own culture in Negro spirituals and in the great works of great men like Du Bois. Instead, “language arts” teacher, with their misnamed discipline, import rap songs into the classroom in a condescending and debasing attempt to make a curriculum without meaning seem, just for a moment, like it has real relevance to the lives of their students. Meanwhile, the true things of perpetual relevance — Truth, Beauty, and Goodness — are cast aside in favor of higher standardized test scores and employment in technical, service, and labor jobs.

Even the great liberal arts universities have gotten in on the debasement and condescension, with an Ivy League school recently publishing a book of annotated hip hop lyrics. Meanwhile, little boys and girls across the United States, both black and white, are further removed from access to the great ideas and the eternal things, the things that will make them not “black” and “white” but human in the fullest and truest sense of that word.

Du Bois is an essential read for anyone who is seeking to understand race in America, both in history and today, as well as anyone interested in giving access to a full and happy life to all people of whatever race.

That life which meat nourishes

The hundred hills of Atlanta are not all crowed with factories. On one, toward the west, the setting sun throws three buildings in bold relief against the sky. The beauty of the group lies in its simple unity: — a broad lawn of green rising from the red street with mingled roses and peaches; north and south, two plain and stately halls; and in the midst, half hidden in ivy, a larger building, boldly graceful, sparingly decorated, and with one low spire. It is a restful group, — one never looks for more; it is all here, all intelligible. There I live, and there I hear from day to day the low hum of restful life. In winter’s twilight, when the red sun glows, I can see the dark figures pass between the halls to the music of the night-bell. In the morning, when the sun is golden, the clang of the day-bell brings the hurry and laughter of three hundred young hearts from hall and street, and from the busy city below, — children all dark and heavy-haired, — to join their clear young voices in the music of the morning sacrifice. In a half-dozen class-rooms they gather then, — here to follow the love song of Dido, here to listen to the tale of Troy divine; there to wander among the stars, there to wander among men and nations, — and elsewhere other well-worn ways of knowing this queer world. Nothing new, no time-saving devices, — simply old time-glorified methods of delving for Truth, and searching out the hidden beauties of life, and learning the good of living. The riddle of existence is the college curriculum that was laid before the Pharaohs, that was taught in the groves by Plato, that formed the trivium and quadrivium, and is to-day laid before the freedmen’s sons by Atlanta University. And this course of study will not change; its methods will grow more deft and effectual, its content richer by toil of scholar and sight of seer; but the true college will ever have one goal, — not to earn meat, but to know the end and aim of that life which meat nourishes.

W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, pp. 62-3

W.E.B. DuBois on African-Americans and Education

As many of you already know, I have the great joy of working at a classical school that is quite unique in its location and demographics. We are in the heart of a traditionally African-American neighborhood in Savannah, GA, and have a student population that is overwhelmingly African-American. The majority of our students also live in households with incomes low enough to qualify for free lunch (set at twice the poverty line). It has been our struggle since even before our inception to justify our existence to a school district (we are a charter school because of our mission to remain tuition-free and open to the public, and so, need their approval, however grudgingly it may be given) that forces 8th graders to choose from a list of a dozen “career pathways” (all of which are technical/vocational) when preparing to enter high school. (As a sample, witness this characteristically inane recent article recently published in Savannah’s local newspaper.)

Earlier today, I had the great pleasure of attending an event celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Carnegie Library, just a few blocks away from our school, which is, by all evidence hitherto discovered, the oldest continually functioning black library in America. It was founded and funded by members of Savannah’s African-American elite using money provided by members of the African-American community and matched by the Carnegie Foundation in 1914. This is the same library Clarence Thomas spent time in while a boy. He wrote in his autobiography that it was seeing the photos of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington on the wall here and reading of the world outside of Savannah’s then-segregated and still poverty-ridden East Side that set him on the journey to where he is today.

Departing from my tangent to continue: While there, I took the opportunity to browse through the many shelves of books on the history of African-Americans in Savannah and in the United States generally. One book I came across was a collection of essays published the same year the library was founded in which the early 20th century black intellectual W.E.B. DuBois argues that the technical/vocational education then being presented to African-Americans will continually hold them back from attaining positions of leadership in this country and even from becoming competent citizens. It is only access to a liberal education in the humanities that will prepare them to become a people who can effectively communicate their unique experience and thereby contribute to the American, Western, and world traditions of thought. I am very pleased to have found this eloquent and erudite ally among the great African-American figures.

While I could not check the book out (unfortunately but understandably, such treasures are not allowed to leave the library), I did find this short selection from one of those essays after a few Google searches. The short quote below I believe accurately conveys DuBois’s position, one in which I share and which, unfortunately, remains equally valid even 100 years later, in 2014:

“While then we teach men to earn a living, that teaching is incidental and subordinate to the larger training of intelligence in human beings and to the largest development of self-realization in men. Those who would deny this to the Negro race are enemies of mankind.”