Work and Thought

Yes, we need to have a top-notch workforce for the future. Yes, we need to be sure that students know the basics so they can compete in a world economy. But as we consider how students especially first-generation college students, go through school and college, we should be careful that we don’t simply make them dutiful and obedient laborers. For a truly democratic and liberal society to be truly successful, it must have citizens, not just workers, and that requires real education, not just training.

I’ve written about this topic before but I recently re-read W.E.B. DuBois’s essay, “The Talented Tenth” and recalled how he and Booker T. Washington argued about how African Americans could best take their rightful places in American society. Washington argued that Black people should temporarily forego “political power, insistence on civil rights, and higher education of Negro youth. They should concentrate all their energies on industrial education.” DuBois believed in the higher education of a “Talented Tenth” who through their knowledge of modern culture could guide the American Negro into a higher civilization.

Washington contended that work, specifically including manual labor, would secure African Americans’ lives in the United States. He wrote, “Dignify and glorify common labor. It is at the bottom of life that we must begin, not at the top.” He believed that African Americans could earn their places by showing their usefulness, which would in turn garner respect. While he didn’t disparage education per se, he didn’t see it as essential to their progress, and put physical exertion on a par with mental: “No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.”

While Washington sees all African Americans as part of the solution to racial inequality, given that most people can do manual labor without education, DuBois had a very different view. He believed that it would take a highly educated elite to “lift up” African Americans. In September 1903 he delivered his “Talented Tenth” speech, where he said, “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races.” For him there were the elite who would show the way to the rest.

I think about these contrasting views when I see programs that take what essentially is the “talented tenth” of African American or Latino or other similar cultural/ethnic groups and provides college Programs, scholarships, and other advantages their peers don’t have. It seems sometimes that we are saving the elite and leaving the rest behind. Clearly, no one program or collection of Programs can work with every underserved student, but in trying to rescue the elite, are we neglecting to address broader systemic issues, like the poor quality of education or poverty itself? A related issue for me is are we choosing to “educate” these elite students and simply “train” the rest to be laborers?

I work with many of those elite students and the programs that assist them, and am humbled by the many struggles that occur as they try to gain an education in spite of the many forces arrayed against them. I am happiest when I’m helping a wonderful kid realize he has choices in front of him as he prepares to go to college.

But I do worry about his peers who were not lucky enough to get into Chicago Scholars or a charter school or a magnet high school offering an IB program. Are they just going to have to do the best they can and settle for what comes along?

I go back to DuBois, who was also concerned about the quality of education the “tenth” should receive, distinguishing it from “training”: Now the training of men is a difficult and intricate task. Its technique is a matter for educational experts, but its object is for the vision of seers. If we make money the object of man-training, we shall develop money-makers but not necessarily men; if we make technical skill the object of education, we may possess artisans but not, in nature, men. Men we shall have only as we make manhood the object of the work of the schools.”

So it is not enough to educate students for work, but also for broadness of vision, for without that, we cannot really have a full life. This is what I worry about, that our wonderful but very few students will receive and benefit from our programs, while their peers will be stuck not only in dead-end jobs but without the advantages that education can give them even divorced from the world of work. DuBois wrote, “…intelligence, broad sympathy, knowledge of the world that was and is, and of the relation of men to it, this is the curriculum of that Higher Education which must underlie true life. On this foundation we may build bread winning, skill of hand and quickness of brain, with never a fear lest the child and man mistake the means of living for the object of life.”

I think most students of whatever background are capable of learning and understanding if they’re given ideas and asked to work with them. But we should think of all our students as potential members of the “talented tenth” and give them the attention they deserve. Otherwise, we will have generations of students who believe that work is all that matters. They will lead grey lives, be easily manipulated, and never have that largeness of vision that makes life worth living and a democratic society function. I’d like all my students to feel they can not only earn livings but also engage in the many conversations that democratic society expects us to have and which are the foundations of full participation in its benefits.