Washington or Du Bois?

In this paper, I will elaborate on the central issue in the debate between Washington and Du Bois. I will explain why Du Bois’ approach to advocating for education, equality and rights for blacks would have been more effective in the long run while Washington’s methods produced apparent short-term gains. I will use a historical example from India, references from the essays and our classroom discussions to present my arguments. I shall conclude the paper with the implications of the debate in the light of the times that these two men lived in.

The essays ‘Industrial Education for the Negro’ and ‘The Talented Tenth’ which form the basis of this paper were written in 1903. At the time, the Northern states in the United States of America (U.S.A.) had become intensely anti-black after the civil war ended in 1865. They believed in the supremacy of whites and were content with letting the Southern states handle the ‘Negro problem’. The condition of blacks in the South was not much better and began further deteriorating after the 1876 presidential election – economically, the only available jobs on the market were tasks that involved unskilled labour; socially, invisible walls that promoted segregation and created a hostile environment were reinforced through laws and politically, the rights of blacks were severely restricted.

Washington believed that blacks should start from the lowest rung by performing menial tasks and gradually work their way up the ladder of the economic structure. He thought that the process of improving the conditions of his race would be a slow one and stressed on patience. He was silent on the issue of inequality between blacks and whites; if anything, he consciously assured the whites that blacks did not seek to be truly integrated into society.

Du Bois, like Washington, was also concerned with improving the conditions of black people. However, he adopted an approach starkly different from Washington. Du Bois believed that a group of well-educated black leaders (the ‘talented tenth’, hereafter TT) with college degrees was the need of the hour. According to him, these leaders would then be in positions to drive progress in the black community as a whole. He was vocal on the issue of inequality, believed that blacks and whites were fundamentally equal and was in favour of societal integration.

Thus, it is evident that Washington and Du Bois had similar end goals but different means of achieving those ends. Washington opted for a passive approach and was willing to patiently wait for the gradual advancement of blacks while Du Bois advocated an active approach in which he wanted the conditions of the blacks to immediately improve. To analyse their philosophies, I will study their positions on three strands – their views on education and on the social and political conditions of blacks – and examine the key similarities and differences between them.

On education, Washington thought that training in industrial schools was foundational to making blacks an invaluable resource for whites. Washington believed that there was agency and dignity in all forms of labour and that different people were suited for different professions. He reasoned that political rights and social equality would inevitably come if blacks were able to economically prove themselves by excelling in mechanical trades. He saw college education and degrees as impractical and not useful to economic advancement; hence, he founded the Tuskegee Institute that would primarily focus on industrial training while imparting mental and moral culture to students by the side. This would be a departure from the past when blacks were trained by whites for selfish reasons with no connection between physical and mental training.

In contrast to this, Du Bois strongly believed in a college education that would help the blacks lead in the Senate and not at the plough. In his view, culture always filters from the top downwards and blacks needed to occupy influential positions for economic advancement. He wanted the TT, through their knowledge and refined culture, to guide the remaining 90 percent of blacks to higher planes of thought. Du Bois did not completely condemn trade schools and realised that a majority of people might not be suited for a college education; for these men, industrial training would be required for them to be employed and to improve the economic conditions of blacks. According to Du Bois, education must ‘strengthen the Negro’s character, increase his knowledge and teach him to earn a living’ and is not restricted only to schools – family and society play a pivotal role as well. The objective of education is to ‘make carpenters men’ and not men carpenters as having a career is not the sole purpose of existence.

Thus, we see that both Washington and Du Bois believed in the power of education in uplifting the black community but had different beliefs on the manner in which it should be imparted. One similarity between their ideologies was their concern with morals and how a good education must develop men of character.

With reference to social conditions, Washington and Du Bois had very disparate views on equality and the position of blacks in society. Washington thought that blacks and white were like fingers on a hand – essentially distinct but required to work together for mutual advancement. His stance indicates a compromise as he hoped to garner support from the whites in the South by not pushing for social equality. Instead, he put forth an image that blacks were socially inferior to whites.

Du Bois approached the issue of social inequality in a direct manner. He writes ‘O, ye Christians, who hold us and our children in the most abject ignorance and degradation… …I say if God gives you peace and tranquillity, and suffers you thus to go on afflicting us… …would He be to us a God of Justice?’ It is worth noting that Du Bois was agnostic and a sentence of this kind is targeted towards the white Christians who subjected blacks to grave injustices. He wanted the identity of blacks to be respected and did not wish for his community to lose their culture in the quest for integration. For him, equality of all men, regardless of colour, was a fundamental right.

Examining the stances adopted by Washington and Du Bois on politics is the final piece to understanding their ideological differences. Similar to his view on social conditions, Washington believed that blacks needed to earn their political rights and privileges and be prepared to judiciously use them. Once again, this conservative approach points to him trying to not antagonise the whites and to send across the message that blacks were politically inferior to whites.

On the other hand, Du Bois is aggressive in his view that blacks need political rights that is consistent with his belief that culture is set from the top downwards. If blacks are denied political rights and power, then how will they be able to sustain any economic and social change? Du Bois was unwilling to accept political disfranchisement and wanted equal voting rights for blacks and whites.

Washington and Du Bois differed in the professions that they emphasised as important for progress. Washington believed that agriculture was the most important occupation that a black man could be involved in which was also the first field of study at Tuskegee. He says that black men should be a ‘class of tenants or small land owners, trained not away from the soil, but in relation to the soil and in intelligent dependence upon its resources’ and is also why he was against blacks leaving the countryside for cities. Du Bois believed that teaching was the most vital profession for progress as it was teachers who established morals and culture in society while placing an ‘attainable ideal’ in front of each child to aspire towards. According to him, manual training had a higher elevated purpose; correspondingly, teaching at trade schools was a specialised profession that merited respect as well.

There was an interesting parallel to the Washington-Du Bois debate playing out in India at the turn of the nineteenth century. A section of the Indian National Congress called the Moderates were the prominent members of Indian leadership between 1885 and 1905. Their ideologies were very similar to Washington’s – they wanted gradual reforms, did not seek political rights and saw British rule as beneficial to the modernisation of India. They believed in peaceful and constitutional agitation and dialogue with the British government. The Moderates thought that if public opinion could be presented to the bureaucracy, then the British authorities would gradually concede to these demands. They used resolutions and petitions in an attempt to bring about these reforms. The positives that came out from the Moderates’ approach was a national awakening among Indians and the feeling that all people are a part of one nation. They exposed the flawed moral foundations of colonial rule through dialogue. On the downside, most of their demands were rejected by the British and their stance on political rights alienated them from the masses in the country. They gradually declined and the Extremists came to the forefront between 1905 and 1920.

The Extremists’ approach was analogous to Du Bois’ methods. They believed that India had suffered at the hands of the British for a long time and that a radical change was required to remove the yoke of oppression mirroring Du Bois’ thoughts about how blacks had spent decades under white supremacy. They sought self-rule and adopted extra constitutional methods such as boycotts to make their voices heard. Through these agitations, they involved all classes of society and established a wide social base in the country as they echoed the sentiments of the general public. Patriotism was seen in a passionate and positive light and the Extremists succeeded in planting the seeds of unrest that Mahatma Gandhi then nurtured to lead to India gaining independence in 1947. Thus, the Extremists were more successful than the Moderates in realising their vision of a free India. In both cases (U.S.A. and India), one community was trying to overcome injustices and free itself from the talons of its oppressor. This leads me to believe that Du Bois’ radical approach might have had a deeper and more lasting impact than Washington’s methods.

Washington and Du Bois penned down their essays at a time when the notion of whites being better than blacks was deeply entrenched in society. Washington’s milder approach did succeed in bringing about some positive change in the short run but brought with it the danger of establishing the blacks as a permanent underclass. His emphasis on trade schools could be twisted by whites to cement the existing beliefs that blacks must toil at mechanical trades without respect. Furthermore, his social and political views could be detrimental to blacks in the long run as neither did he publicly endorse that blacks and whites were equal nor did he advocate for their right to participate in governance.

Du Bois believed in a more holistic education to raise the position of blacks in society. He wrote ‘…we make manhood the object of the work of the schools – intelligence, broad sympathy, knowledge of the world that was and is, and of the relation of men to it…’ His stance on both the political and social conditions of blacks was powerful, definitive and could alter the deep-rooted beliefs about the statuses of blacks and whites. He asked uncomfortable questions and his opinion that blacks need to be represented in government are valid even today as it is the politicians and bureaucrats who hold power and make decisions that impact citizens. Thus, if the blacks truly wanted to improve their conditions, they would need to step into leadership roles in government and stand up for their rights – evident in Du Bois’ ideological approach and absent in Washington’s suggestions.

However, Du Bois’ arguments are not without flaws. First, he seemed to believe that critical thinking and leadership skills are only obtainable at universities – why he thinks this is unclear and, in some sense, goes against his opinion that society and family play a crucial role in education. Second, one could say that Du Bois was being inherently exclusionary in his idea of a TT by focusing resources on 10 percent of the community for the advancement of the rest. He is vague on how he wishes to identify these TT and channel resources towards their development. Third, will the TT always feel like giving back to their communities? In one of our classroom sessions, we discussed about the incentive for the cave man in The Republic to go back to the cave to enlighten his race. In hindsight, many of the TT went back to their communities as they did not have a choice in terms of employment; would they have returned on their own accord? Fourth, Du Bois is sketchy about the concrete skills gained through a liberal arts education and how they translate into actions that help the remaining 90 percent of the community.

The debate had implications on the way history panned out. Washington gained popularity among the whites and realised short-term successes (such as funding for black education) but was criticised for accepting the position of blacks as second class citizens. By currying favour with the whites, he appears to have sacrificed long-term benefits of equality and political rights for immediate positives. On the other hand, Du Bois never reached the levels of popularity enjoyed by Washington as he bluntly spoke his mind on the rights of blacks which antagonised the whites. A historical fact worth noting is that Washington was born into slavery in 1856 and became prominent prior to Du Bois who was born after the Civil War in 1868 – this allowed Washington to establish a foothold in black leadership and silence critics such as Du Bois. It appears that any black leader who wanted the conditions of their community to improve faced a dilemma – he could either follow a path like Washington’s and be satisfied with small, short-term changes that did not upset the apple cart or could take a stance like Du Bois that was more radical and advocate for systemic changes at the cost of alienating existing powers. This is crucial to my argument as it is easy to pass judgement on the ideologies of these two men when, in fact, there does not appear to be a definitive right answer.

In conclusion, two contrasting schools of thought to improve the conditions of the blacks have been examined – one that believes in not upsetting the existing power dynamics and settling for slow, gradual progress (Washington) while the other that believes in obtaining fundamental rights for blacks and challenging the status quo (Du Bois). Through the analysis and examples elaborated upon in the paper, I contend that Du Bois’ approach would have had more lasting positive effects in improving the overall conditions of black people – economically, socially and politically – while Washington’s ideas served to obtain short term gains for the black community.


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This essay was submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the course EDU S105 - Philosophy of Education completed by the author at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The word limit was 2500 words.