As our 2013 observance of African-American history month comes to a close, I am reminded of two American educators of a century ago, men who in their day were regarded as “leaders of their race,” but whose thoughts are of value to all their fellow countrymen – white, black, other and all three. The two were also regarded as proponents of diametrically opposed approaches to education, especially as it applied to their fellows of African descent. And though characterizing their ideas about schooling as mutually exclusive has some value in understanding them, it also has limited the pair’s impact beyond a racially defined part of the population.
Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) was the elder of the two by a decade. Like W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963), Washington was a remarkable human being. He was born into slavery in the western part of Virginia, and his childhood was a steady challenge for survival. He had, however, a knack for making friends who could help him meet a destiny he surely determined for himself at an early age. He walked, he tells us in his biography Up from Slavery, much of the 500 miles to Hampton Institute near Richmond, where he managed to enroll as a student, despite meager schooling.
Hampton had been organized after the Civil War to teach young black men a trade; Washington was so successful as a student (and entrepreneur) that he was soon given an opportunity to be founding head of a similar school in Tuskegee, Alabama. It was the summer of 1881, and when he arrived at his new school, he discovered there were no buildings, though there were several dozen eager students. So, he set them to work, first making bricks and then constructing a school – or so he tells readers at any rate.
This experience, though, was the core of his approach to education – a variant of the progressive idea of learning by doing: brick-making, in effect, was chemistry and heat; construction, math and physics. Learn a trade, he told his students; acquire a salable skill, and don’t worry about social or political equality. It was an appealing message to the rest of the nation, and Washington was soon head of a thriving school. He was anointed a “spokesman” for his race and so lauded that Theodore Roosevelt invited him to dinner at the White House.
Du Bois’s childhood was far different, and as with the rest of us, his early experiences surely influenced his thinking about education. He grew up in a small but well established black community in western Massachusetts. He, too, showed promise at an early age – so much so that his high school principal helped him get into Harvard. He was uneasy there, however, and completed his undergraduate education at Fisk University in Nashville, then taught in the South one summer – an experience that devastated him emotionally, but propelled him into articulating a very different set of priorities for the education of fellow blacks.
Among Du Bois’s firsts was getting a doctorate from Harvard, which he did in 1894, but despite his obvious brilliance and, as would soon become apparent, an ability to turn research data into poetry, no prestigious “white” university would invite him to join its faculty. So he went to teach in Atlanta, helped establish the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, edited its monthly magazine The Crisis, and was quickly acquired a reputation for impatience with Washington’s accommodationist attitudes.
In 1903, Du Bois produced an eloquent, prescient set of essays published as The Souls of Black Folk. As an unusually perceptive sociologist, he was a keen observer; as a pragmatic theorist, he forcefully demolished Washington’s “trade school” approach, and insisted instead that black Americans needed an educated elite to lead them toward the equality with other Americans they deserved. Black colleges should not only prepare schoolteachers, but provide an academically challenging education for this elite, which he rather inelegantly called the “Talented Tenth.”
The conflict between Washington and Du Bois can be reduced to a series of opposites: industrial versus academic education, a determinist (i.e., one’s origins determine one’s future) versus a more liberating, humanist education (in which one defines one’s own destiny). And, to bring the story back to Trenton, their conflict seems to have been reflected in schools established for black children and youth here, especially as the community endeavored to absorb southern migrants of little or no schooling during and after World War I.
There was, on one hand, Miss Arnetta Lee, the gifted kindergarten teacher at Trenton’s New Lincoln School I wrote about last week – a woman who surrounded her young students with books and stories of the wider world, punctuated them with lessons in self-discipline, and leavened them with a sense of play. Self-discovery was key. It was surely an early childhood education program of which Du Bois would approve. On the other hand, there was the Manual Training and Industrial School for Colored Youth, established in Bordentown as a northern complement to Tuskegee. Though New Lincoln’s founding came four decades after that of the Bordentown school, the two can be seen as representative of the academic versus the industrial model – I’d bet Miss Lee read Souls of Black Folk and aimed her charges toward being part of Du Bois’s elite.
The problem, of course, is whatever aspirations New Lincoln students might have had, they were too often tempered by the reality of their day. Black students were only grudgingly welcomed in Trenton’s prestigious Central High School, which opened in 1932. Too often, once there, they were channeled into vocational programs. Trenton, from what I’ve learned, did develop its own black elite of well-educated professionals. But perhaps it was never large enough or strong enough to effectively counter the social changes of the 1960s.
Du Bois himself, self-exiled to Ghana, died in August of 1963 – just the day before Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream Speech” at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. And I, for one, wish Du Bois were still around to analyze the challenges facing Trenton’s schools today.