Why W. E. B. Du Bois Still Matters

W. E. B. Du Bois is still important both for what he says about the education of Black people and as that applies to the education all other people as well.

The reputation of W. E. B. Du Bois is firmly established on the basis of his accomplishments as an editor, advocate, and as a sociologist who a hundred years ago produced numerous statistical studies of the conditions of black life. The breadth of his vision and accomplishments is admirably spelled out in David Levering Lewis’s magisterial two volume biography. Du Bois, however, is deeply involved, early in life, as someone who teaches reading to ex-slaves and then is a young professor explaining poetry and literature at Atlanta University, an all Black institution. He is deeply involved in considering what an ethnic education means for a group that is not even as of yet considered to be an ethnic rather than a racial group.

W. E. B. Du Bois’ views on education are generally considered to contrast with those of Booker T. Washington, who had wanted Negroes to be trained in crafts so that they might earn a living and so become a respectable caste of people. Du Bois, on the other hand, wanted to educate, in that famous phrase, “the talented tenth”, so that they could provide leadership for the race. Put that way, the debate over black education, a hundred years after Jefferson, was a continuation of the same argument: which segment of the population should be educated so as to further the general political and social advancement of the entire group?

Du Bois, however, thought that, as formidable a task as it was to educate the downtrodden, this was a transitional problem rather than, as Booker T. Washington proposed, a way to define a permanent place for ex-slaves and their descendants in the American social structure. Du Bois believed that eventually Negroes would be admitted to white institutions on their own merit and then the problem will be how to retain a sense of black culture (a rather breathtaking leap into the future given that he was writing at the time when the Jim Crow system was at its height). Preserving black culture would be a problem only if the black students at the integrated once all white institutions were being exposed to a standard curriculum rather than having carved out for them special curriculums suited to their own backgrounds. So Du Bois, like Jefferson, has no problem with the idea of a single curriculum, though for him it is based on the humanities rather than on the natural and the social sciences.

Du Bois stands in contrast not just to Booker T. Washington. He also stands in contrast to Thomas Huxley, the proponent of scientific education in England as that was to be contrasted with the more classical education championed by Matthew Arnold (and his father, Thomas Arnold, the renowned head of Eton). The older tradition (not that old, considering the decrepit conditions of English education in both the universities and the public schools before the revitalization of English education in the Eighteen-Twenties and later), believed that, as Matthew Arnold was to put it, culture is the best of whatever is. Culture was a touchstone of human experience, whether that was the classics or the Bible or even the culture of the Eighteenth Century. The purpose of education was to deepen the soul and so provide the functional equivalent of religion.

Huxley, on the other hand, spoke for the new scientific disciplines that were emerging in the Nineteenth Century. He wanted a curriculum devoted to the biological and physical sciences. Why did these pursuits not deserve the same prestige as the older studies in classics and languages? They not only refined the mind; they also were of practical utility. Engineers trained at schools were an improvement on inventors whose training consisted of self study (even though the triumphs of the great inventors, Edison, Ford and the Wright Brothers, lay in the future, and none of them were college trained).

That the Huxley argument has carried the day is clear from the fact that education today is being sold as a race for international competitiveness in math and science. No one claims that the future of the country depends on developing classicists and historians, though one could argue that is the only way a country can understand what its soul is attuned to or, less grandly, how to be sophisticated about politics. Have you ever heard of a great civilization that did not also have an outstanding culture? The Jeffersonian ideal of combining natural science with what we would now call political science seems no longer to be the conventional wisdom. You can pick up your politics at the dinner table even if your sex education is attended to at school.

Although De Bois is Jeffersonian because of his belief in education for the elite, the ones who would become the leaders of the nation, he is a follower of Arnold rather than of Huxley (or of Jefferson) in his belief in the virtues of what we call a liberal arts education. Although he devoted his own scholarly life to the discipline of sociology, applying techniques for quantitative analysis that were still new at the time, his sense of education was that people were supposed to use it to broaden their own sense of life. That was the case, most obviously, with himself, who uses classical tags a bit promiscuously so as to identify his own state of cultural enlightenment when he describes what a happy life it is to wander the campus of Atlanta University while thinking one’s own thoughts, whatever those may be. He was certainly not intellectually imprisoned so as to think only of the racial question, however much that was the central focus of his social concerns. The point was that as a free man, a man free in his spirit, though still subject to the color bar, and part of a people very long from liberation, his mind could contemplate any of the thoughts of the ages. That he could do so, that he did so, was the sign that any person could be the cultural equal of any other person no matter the outer trappings of the soul. That was the true freedom that all other freedoms made possible. He was like Helen Keller, his contemporary: a singular individual who demonstrated the possibilities of a category of people.

Moreover, this spiritual freedom was not only for the elite who had the leisure to cultivate its souls. It was for any person, no matter how downtrodden. Du Bois includes in “The Souls of Black Folk” (do not forget that his subject is their souls, not their economic and social condition) a very poignant essay about his experiences as a young man who wandered through rural areas living with the ex-slave families that he instructed in basic reading. He does not go on about how reading would improve their chances in the job market. It wouldn’t; they would remain tenant farmers, though possibly with a somewhat heightened ability to protect themselves in negotiations with their white landlords. Rather, what he points to is the smile and satisfaction that came to those he taught when they became able to decipher words. Learning to read had to do with their personal selves, not with their condition; it was part and parcel of making a person truly free in all the ways that an advanced late Nineteenth Century consciousness like Du Bois’ would think: it gave people access to other minds never met in person; it complicated the experience that made up one’s own consciousness; it increased self-consciousness, so that one could be in dialogue with oneself; it increased the acuity with which one would notice the consciousness of others; and so on. This Kantian ideal, that freedom of consciousness was independent of one’s condition of servitude, would not survive everything that befell Du Bois in the course of his long life, but when he was young and hopeful, it is what he prized.

It is therefore appropriate to think of Du Bois as a cosmopolitan in a number of senses of that term. He saw himself as a citizen of the world, privy to all its cultures, and therefore a bit remote from any particular culture, however much he was also very much a resident in the social status of being black during a period particularly unfriendly to that group. He saw education as liberating the mind and the spirit to take a broader view of things and so not become subject to conventional thinking, and this was achieved by consulting the books that had been passed down through human history, becoming friends with them, so that one could drag out tag lines and sentiments as they were needed to make it through the day or so as to think about the larger scheme of things. He was cosmopolitan in that he did not think the principles that were developed in this way needed any other form of authority for their support. He was a free man in a nation full of shackles. A cosmopolitan is a sophisticate, whether he lives in the city or the country.

Bear in mind that Du Bois’ point of view remains radical, however many graduates of historically black colleges have profited from the notion that education is and ought to be elitist for all those who can manage it. It is very different from the views of black educators during the Sixties and the Seventies who advocated for black teachers for black students and for a curriculum suited to the cultural needs of black students. It is also very different from those who think that single sex education for black males may help them to overcome their difficulties. For Du Bois, the material itself is reward enough for the eager student.

Du Bois is concerned with a classical liberal arts education that brings forward the spiritual aspects of life. In it there is room for intellectual adventure of the humanistic sort: exploring periods and people, immersing oneself in the world beyond oneself in all of its variety and so emerging beyond it with a vantage point on it. There is always more to learn, new territories to explore. And this can be done by oneself in the territory of one’s own mind. All one needs is, in his time, access to a library, and in our time, access to a Kindle. So culture is for Du Bois an isolated and individual thing, even as it is shared with other people who have made treks of exploration on their own and discovered items or aspects of things you had yourself not noticed even if you passed the same places—which is to say, read the same books. This is the prescription for the education of anyone, not just people of color.