Monday, January 19, 2015

W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, and Jim Crow

It's MLK Day, and I am doing some work on a unit on the Jim Crow South, appropriately enough. In past years we've read a handful of chapters on the debate between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois and then discussed their differences.

This year I'm doing my best to include as much primary source reading as possible, so I'm reading through DuBois' 1903 essay "Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others" for the first time. It's very compelling. One thing that strikes me is DuBois' criticism of Washington for advocating a too narrow, too utilitarian education--for choosing shop class over Shakespeare essentially.

Dubois' central critique, of course, is that Washington was too willing to overlook injustice, that he made his peace with oppression. But I hadn't ever seen his argument for the liberal arts over and against Washington's technical education: Mr. Washington knew the heart of the South from birth and training, so by singular insight he intuitively grasped the spirit of the age which was dominating the North. And so thoroughly did he learn the speech and thought of triumphant commercialism, and the ideals of material prosperity that the picture of a lone black boy poring over a French grammar amid the weeds and dirt of a neglected home soon seemed to him the acme of absurdities. One wonders what Socrates and St. Francis of Assisi would say to this. 
...This is an age of unusual economic development, and Mr. Washington’s programme naturally takes an economic cast, becoming a gospel of Work and Money to such an extent as apparently almost completely to overshadow the higher aims of life.
You can--and should--read the essay in its entirety here.