Booker T. Washington was born a slave in Virginia about 1858. He went on to found the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and spent his life working to help his fellow African Americans establish new lives in post-Civil War society.

I am reading Washington's autobiography Up From Slavery for the first time. It addresses the issue of relations between black and white Americans, and Washington has a valuable perspective on that serious topic. But I want to highlight here some of his thoughts on education.

The hubbub about the Common Core State Standards will eventually die down, when another educational transformation comes on the scene. My basic understanding of Common Core is that it is a recommended set of knowledge and skills in English and Math that all children should learn. Whether that is a good idea or a bad idea, it is an incomplete idea. Children need more than just knowing stuff so they can pass a test. They need to learn how to live and why.

Booker T. Washington got his education at the Hampton Institute in Virginia several years after the Civil War. While talking about Samuel Armstrong, founder of Hampton, Washington said, "The older I grow, the more I am convinced that there is no education which one can get from books and costly apparatus that is equal to that which can be gotten from contact with great men and women. Instead of studying books so constantly, how I wish that our schools and colleges might learn to study men and things!"

Washington also learned the value of diligent work, and he applied that lesson at Tuskegee. All students there had to work. One of their major tasks in the first few years was actually building the school. This gave the students a sense of pride and ownership in their campus. As Washington noted, "Not a few times, when a new student has been led into the temptation of marring the looks of some building by leadpencil marks or by the cuts of a jack-knife, I have heard an old student remind him: 'Don't do that. That is our building. I helped put it up.'"

 Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (c. 1916)

Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (c. 1916)

Learning practical skills, Washington believed, would give former slaves and their descendants an opportunity to make a way for themselves. Some black leaders wanted to focus on classical education and dismissed the importance of practical, "industrial" education. Washington observed:

The individual who can do something that the world wants done will, in the end, make his way regardless of race. One man may go into a community prepared to supply the people there with an analysis of Greek sentences. The community may not at the time be prepared for, or feel the need of, Greek analysis, but it may feel its need of bricks and houses and wagons. If the man can supply the need for those, then, it will lead eventually to a demand for the first product, and with the demand will come the ability to appreciate it and to profit by it.

Children can and do get a bad education everywhere--public school, private school, and homeschool. Children also get a good education from dedicated people in each of those settings. There is not a one-size-fits-all educational solution for every child in every family in every community. As we seek to educate our own children, and as our society makes decisions that affect other people's children, we should listen to the wisdom of Booker T. Washington. He reminds us that true education is about much more than filling our heads with knowledge. Ultimately education is about finding out how each of us can live her one life well. In conclusion he says:

My whole life has largely been one of surprises. I believe that any man’s life will be filled with constant, unexpected encouragements of this kind if he makes up his mind to do his level best each day of his life—that is, tries to make each day reach as nearly as possible the high-water mark of pure, unselfish, useful living. I pity the man, black or white, who has never experienced the joy and satisfaction that come to one by reason of an effort to assist in making some one else more useful and more happy.


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