Booker T. Washington believed deeply in the importance of education in the development of young people. He suggests that African Americans were “crippled” when they were freed by the federal government but had no means by which to educate themselves. He attributes this lack of education to the failures of the Reconstruction period following the Civil War. After the war, many black people made quick strides into the political and economic spheres, but during Reconstruction they ultimately failed to advance due to racist state policies, a lack of political protection, and, according to Washington, a severe lack of capabilities. Washington dedicated his life to educating African Americans, resulting ultimately in the development and institution of one of the oldest black institutions of higher learning in the nation, the Tuskegee institute. However, Washington’s ideal education does not consist of “mere book learning,” as he felt that many poor blacks attempt to get an education to avoid lifelong physical labor. Rather, Washington’s curriculum at the Institute consisted of equal parts book learning and vocational practices. Students spent most of their mornings and afternoons learning a trade such as blacksmithing, brickmaking, or carpentry, and their early afternoons and evenings studying. As a result, Washington hoped to produce students with “practical skills” that they could use to serve and ultimately better their communities.
Washington was against what he called “mere book learning,” and he believed that this type of education does little to nothing for the betterment of the race. In his autobiography, Washington expresses a deep distaste for those who attempt to avoid labor by getting an education. He suggests that prolonged study without vocational training is ultimately useless to a race that needs to focus on lifting itself out of the depths of slavery and into mainstream American society. Many students would come to Tuskegee looking to study books in languages such as Greek, Latin, and French, and they would be horrified once they found out that they would be asked to learn a vocation in addition to their book studies. Washington criticizes such students. He believes that students are proud of their book learning for the wrong reasons, as “the bigger the book and the longer the name of the subject, the prouder they felt of their accomplishment.” However, he feels that these students merit no particular distinction, because although they have mastered these languages and subjects, they have nothing with which to serve their communities and fellow man.
Vocational learning is also equally, if not more, valuable to training in the arts and sciences, according to Washington. He believes that vocational training is not just important for attendees at Tuskegee, but that it is the best means by which to propel their development as students and citizens. In the “Atlanta Exposition Address,” Washington pushes vocational training to the top priority of his educational philosophy. He states, “The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera-house.” Washington believes that access and training in the arts is of less importance than the opportunity to labor and earn one’s own money. While such a belief departed from the tradition of Western education, which advocated for an education primarily in the arts and sciences, it remained in line with Western white society’s racial ideology promoting the idea of blacks being relegated to physical labor. As a result, the large white portion of the audience was sated by Washington’s educational ideology and his suggestions. Since Washington believed racial uplift to be a gradual process, his promotion of vocational education upheld current racial hierarchies while attempting to find personal and individual improvement through merit and labor.
Since his view of vocational learning did not challenge America’s racial hierarchy, Washington believed that vocational learning could help African Americans find value in the complex racial relations at the time. According to Washington, racial protests, political agitation, and pushes toward full equality were foolish because African Americans of the time were not prepared for full equality. In fact, he believed that the newly freed slaves had not been prepared for emancipation, for they had no formal education, social training, or sense of propriety. Washington suggests that many of the racial tensions in the U.S. at the turn of the century were a result of such unpreparedness. He saw vocational learning as the solution to this problem, as it would help black Americans to find economic value “where they were” without disturbing racial tensions. As a result, whites were not threatened by Washington’s ideology, as it largely reinforced the notion that African Americans had the responsibility to economically contribute to and support their communities.
To Washington, vocational education was the perfect solution to the maelstrom of political problems in the U.S. at the time in which he was writing. It helped to promote the development of individual freedom; it provided an intermediate means to move from the depths of slavery to the heights of freedom; and it helped blacks to find belonging in their communities without agitating the fragile racial fears of whites. His promotion of vocational learning attracted many critics, however. Perhaps the most notable of these was W.E.B. Du Bois, who saw Washington’s educational model as not only problematic, but also harmful to the entire race. Aside from its problematic implications of black Americans as a constant “laboring class” and white Americans as innocent of racism, Washington’s model also seemed to promote the same “separate but equal” ideology as the racist Jim Crow laws, which legally mandated social segregation and political suppression of black Americans. Washington, on the other hand, saw vocational education as the perfect means by which to uplift his students, fellow citizens, and country out of the racial and economic squalor at the turn of the century.
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Vocational Education Quotes in Up From Slavery
The education that I received at Hampton out of the text-books was but a small part of what I learned there...Before the end of the year, I think I began learning that those who are happiest are those who do the most for others. This lesson I have tried to carry with me ever since.
At Hampton I not only learned that it was not a disgrace to labour, but learned to love labour, not alone for its financial value, but for labour’s own sake and for the independence and self-reliance which the ability to do something which the world wants done brings. At that institution I got my first taste what it meant to live a life of unselfishness, my first knowledge of the fact that the happiest individuals are those who do the most to make others useful and happy.
The central government gave them freedom, and the whole Nation had been enriched for more than two centuries by the labour of the Negro. Even as a youth, and later in manhood, I had the feeling that it was cruelly wrong of the central government…to fail to make some provision for the general education of our people in addition to what the states might do, so that the people would be the better prepared for the duties of citizenship.
In fact, one of the saddest things I saw during the month of travel which I have described was a young man, who had attended some high school, sitting down in a one-room cabin, with grease on his clothing, filth all around him, and weeds in the yard and garden, engaged in studying a French grammar.
We wanted to teach the students how to bathe, how to care for their teeth and clothing. We wanted to teach them what to eat, and how to eat it properly and how to care for their rooms. Aside from this, we wanted to give them such a practical knowledge of some one industry together with the spirit of industry, thrift, and economy, that they would be sure of knowing how to make a living after they had left us. We wanted to teach them to study actual things instead of mere books alone.
From the very beginning, at Tuskegee, I was determined to have the students do not only the agricultural and domestic work, but to have them erect their own buildings. My plan was to have them, while performing this service, taught the latest and best methods of labour, so that the school would not only get the benefit of their efforts, but the students themselves would be taught to see not only utility to labour, but beauty and dignity; would be taught, in fact, how to lift labour up from mere drudgery and toil, and would learn to love work for its own sake. My plan was not to teach them to work in the old way, but to show them how to make the forces of nature—air, water, steam, electricity, horse-power—assist them in their labour.