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.'"
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:
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: