Saturday, June 18, 2016

Reflections: Up from Slavery

Up from Slavery is one of the most important books I've ever read on education.  Although it's not its sole focus, Booker T. Washington provides clear and poignant direction on how to educate, including what is important and what is not.  The debate, like most things, continues today and in a form not terribly different than what it looked like during Washington's day.  In addition to the excellent commentary on education, Up from Slavery presents a leadership philosophy for African Americans I find oddly absent from today's debates regarding race and discrimination.  Although Washington feels a bit self-congratulatory at times in the book, I found Up from Slavery to be an enjoyable and insightful autobiography.

In the same tradition as The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, who was Washington's contemporary, Booker T. Washington tells a story which feels ancient and unbelievable from a modern reader's perspective.  Washington grew up a slave and was emancipated when he was a boy.  His descriptions of experiencing freedom for the first time, along with other freed slaves, are quite educational.  Washington describes an America substantially different from today's, albeit still familiar in important ways. 

Second only to his commentaries on education, I found Washington's insight into leadership, especially in relation to African Americans, to be extremely interesting and shrewd.  Take, for example, the following statement:

"I think that the the whole future of my race hinges on the question as to whether or not it can make itself of such indispensable value that the people in the town and the state where we reside will feel that our presence is necessary to the happiness and well-being of the community.  No man who continues to add something to the material, intellectual, and moral well-being of the place in which he lives is long left without proper reward.  This is a great human law which cannot be permanently nullified."

I do not hear this philosophy of social existence today.  I've written elsewhere about my struggles with race relations in American, and I worry that a viewpoint like Washington's is so completely foreign and not a part of the general discussion.  Today's leaders, of all colors, seem insistent that the only causes of conflict for any race are external, whereas Washington seemed much more eager to look inwardly while not denying the injustices that existed.  I feel his viewpoint is needed in today's debates, regardless of whether or not you feel he's correct.

As mentioned earlier, I feel Washington's commentaries on education are some of the most important I've read.  Washington, in my opinion, would fit pretty comfortably in the grit school of thought today.  I admit my own bias toward that educational outlook while maintaining that my viewpoint, like most others', is nuanced and can't be perfectly categorized.  Washington did so much more, however, in the furthering of education than most commentariats, myself included.  He began and ran a successful educational institution and appears to have gained the favor of many, both in the South and the North (he's where he becomes a bit too self-congratulatory).  Like his viewpoints on leadership and social acceptance, his educational opinions ought not to be ignored today.  Like freedom, most African Americans were experiencing education for the first time.  In effect, a natural experiment was underway that simply cannot be duplicated today.  (Nor would we want to).  For that reason alone, Washington's conclusions and directions should hold a greater weight than most researchers and social scientist.

The Civil War period, before, during and after, is a fascinating, troubling, and heroic time in American history.  The personalities involved in those pivotal moments and events are overshadowed by only the founding generation.  Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery is an excellent addition to my knowledge of that time period and on critical issues, such as education and leadership. 

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Mrs. Lincoln: A Life
Reflections: Gods and Generals
Reflections: American Lion

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