Education is at the centre of Du Bois’ theory of racial uplift, and to his understanding of how society in general can be shaped for the better. One of the key problems Du Bois identifies with the way society currently operates is that people—and white people in particular—are obsessed with wealth and motivated entirely by profit. He argues that education can counter this problem of greed by instilling better morals in people and encouraging them to value truth, compassion, and beauty over money. Du Bois particularly emphasizes the importance of classical education as opposed to only industrial, technical schooling, which other leaders such as Booker T. Washington argued would be sufficient for the African-American community. Du Bois argues that although some black people are better off working as laborers and “artisans,” others have the capacity to succeed in intellectual settings and should be given the opportunity to do so. He cites evidence indicating that black men have performed well in educational institutions as esteemed as Harvard and Yale, and that those who have received the opportunity to study have gone on to successful careers as teachers, clergymen, and healthcare professionals.
Meanwhile, the experience of attending a black college allows students to reckon with the problem of racism and to understand how this impacts them in their own lives. Du Bois highlights how this experience can be a mixed blessing, as greater understanding of racial injustice can lead to bitterness, even as it allows black people to advance themselves and their communities. This concept is particularly highlighted in the story of John Jones, whose carefree innocence is “ruined” by education and who tells his sister that everyone who becomes educated ends up unhappy. Nonetheless, Du Bois argues that the South in particular is in desperate need of the “knowledge and culture” that is cultivated through education, and that this is the only way a “backwards” people and society will become more just.
Du Bois’ description of his own development as a scholar and teacher is also an important part of the book. His personal experience of elite universities and academic success forms a distinct contrast to the limited access to education experienced by most African Americans, particularly those in the South for whom discrimination, poverty, and child labor mean that “ignorance” and illiteracy is widespread. In the book, Du Bois seeks to disprove the widely-held notion that black people’s ignorance is the result of naturally low intelligence and argues that instead it is a result of the legacy of slavery (during which slaves were banned from learning to read and write) and of the present discriminatory conditions of the South.
Education Quotes in The Souls of Black Folk
For every social ill the panacea of Wealth has been urged––wealth to overthrow the remains of the slave feudalism; wealth to raise the "cracker" Third Estate; wealth to employ the black serfs, and the prospect of wealth to keep them working; wealth as the end and aim of politics, and as the legal tender for law and order; and, finally, instead of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, wealth as the ideal of the Public School.
Above all, we daily hear that an education that encourages aspiration, that sets the loftiest of ideals and seeks as an end culture and character rather than breadwinning, is the privilege of white men and the danger and delusion of black.
The teachers in these institutions came not to keep the Negroes in their place, but to raise them out of the defilement of the places where slavery had wallowed them. The colleges they founded were social settlements; homes where the best of the sons of the freedmen came in close and sympathetic touch with the best traditions of New England. They lived and ate together, studied and worked, hoped and harkened in the dawning light.
War, murder, slavery, extermination, and debauchery––this has again and again been the result of carrying civilization and the blessed gospel to the isles of the sea and the heathen without the law.