|www.webdubois.org||Robert Williams' C.V.|
This FINAL DRAFT version
was subsequently published in
The Negro Educational Review,
55:1 (January 2004): 9-26.
W.E.B. Du Bois and the Socio-Political Structures of Education
Draft version by
Parental involvement, or more broadly framed family involvement, in our children's education is currently an important and much discussed topic nowadays. Much has been written about family involvement in education (see, e.g., Caplan et al., 1997; Michigan Department of Education, 2002). At its heart is the establishment of supportive relationships between parents, students, teachers, and communities -- all with the goal of fostering the mutual respect and cooperation that leads to positive educational outcomes for children (Epstein, 1995).
Several justifications are provided for family involvement in education. Some feel it is a right of parents to be involved in their children's education as well as to have input into how the child is educated. Another justification for family involvement is the important role played by family in the educational process of children. There are data to indicate there is a positive correlation between the involvement of parents in a child's education and that child's strengths as a student (see, e.g., Caplan et al., 1997).
While discussions of family involvement in education examine its positive consequences for children's success in school, the justifications are often cast in a practical tone. I contend that what also must be examined are the structural dimensions that likewise justify a role for families in children's education. It is important to note the importance of the family within the myriad social relationships that each of us, including children, are embedded. It has become almost clichéd to say that it takes an entire community to raise a child. But what must be fore-grounded is that the family still provides an integral -- I will say structural -- link between the community and children.
In keeping with a structural slant to the topic, we should also address particular contextual dimensions that condition our lives and family situations: namely, race, class, gender, among other demographic aspects. For the purposes of this paper, I will focus on one aspect and probe one question: what grounds the role of family involvement for African American families today? Generalized and practical justifications for family involvement do not necessarily address the full significance of family involvement for African Americans. We can note some success in halting many forms of racism and in overcoming the historical burdens of racism. Nonetheless, the lingering effects of historical oppression and the newer forms of institutional racism compel us to more fully understand the need for a family-involved education in the 21st century.
It is my contention in this paper that W.E.B. Du Bois, that tireless fighter for African American rights and freedoms, can provide insights into the importance of family involvement in education for African Americans in the 21st century. A Du Boisian-inspired perspective, as reconstructed and elaborated herein, would argue that family involvement is crucial because of the situatedness of parents and family, indeed all of us, within larger social structures and processes. Such structures are exemplified by the institutions, both formal and informal, through which we live our lives. Such structures also include those that transcend and transfix place. For example, we could note the patterned interactions that comprise globalization: patterns of political and economic relationships which affect us in local places in myriad ways, from the choices of consumer products and broadcast media to the impacts on our jobs from overseas competition.
I argue herein that Du Bois utilized a structural approach in his social critiques. It is an approach which situates phenomena under study within the contexts in which the phenomena, such as humans, act and interact (see, e.g., Dyson, 1993: 151-3). Such structural situatedness, as it can be called, allows us to focus on the specificity of African Americans within a broadly constituted social context. Specificity should not be understood in purely atomistic or isolated terms. To grasp the specificity of a phenomenon such as African American families requires that we locate them with regard to a larger context, especially their history within a larger diaspora and the conditions of life experienced in America. From the perspective of structural situatedness, the larger context with its historical and geographical dimensions can be said to influence African American families in terms of their opportunities, constraints, norms, and even how the world might be interpreted.
The social specificity of African Americans would also help us better understand the specificity of African American oppression, to borrow a phrase from Cornel West (1988). Du Bois famously wrote that the color line was the problem the 20th century. We might also add that, despite the obliteration of de jure racism in many instances, there remain further problems: indeed, we can say that many of the problems faced by persons of color in the 21st century are also problems of the legacies of the color line. Du Bois is important in this new millennium because of his implicit model of social dynamics that at once both situates Blacks within larger socio-historical processes and also seeks to grasp the singularity of African Americans within the places, both spatial and social, they occupy.
This paper will seek to reconstruct the often implicit model that Du Bois held and then to apply it to the subject matter of family involvement in K-12 education, a topic on which Du Bois did not explicitly focus. This paper continues that work done by others, such as Derrick Alridge and Bartley McSwine, on Du Bois's implications for education. Alridge delineated various lessons for education policy that a Du Boisian perspective would make based on the themes of Du Bois's political-intellectual career (Alridge, 1999). McSwine examined Du Bois's implicit philosophy of education from a Hegelian perspective, holding that for Du Bois the education of African Americans was a process of struggle through and against the adversity of racial oppression; but it was also a struggle which brought about self-improvement and the possibility of social change (McSwine, 1998). Such reconstructions of Du Bois's philosophy of education are quite useful. Nevertheless, such works do not directly provide theoretical insights into why family involvement is crucial for African American families in the 21st century.
Let me note one caveat to my reconstruction of Du Bois's thought: the subject matter itself. Did he apply his insights to the issue of family involvement in education? Du Bois's discussions of college education highlighted the need for well-prepared teachers of public schools. He even indirectly mentioned parents as important supports or potential hindrances to their children's formal education, such as in The Souls of Black Folk (Du Bois, 1903a). Nevertheless, Du Bois did not expound in a direct way on what we mean by family involvement in education.
We, however, can "decipher" Du Bois to some extent by examining the pieces and reassembling them into an interpretation guided by the thematic of structural situatedness and animated by his lifetime goal of pursuing social justice. I believe that his thoughts can be interpreted along lines that would support the principles of family involvement in education. Du Bois was aware of the importance of children, for the child is crucial for the survival of the group, the community, and humanity in general (Du Bois, 1920a). The family is likewise important to education. But Du Bois also seemed concerned that "uneducated" parents might compound the problem, as he indicated in a 1938 commencement speech at Fisk College. Entitled "The Revelation of St. Orgne the Damned" (Du Bois, 1938), Du Bois argued that, for purposes of education, the biological family was not necessarily the germane unit of analysis. Rather, it was the family as cultural unit that was salient, for the values that were the preconditions of education, like civility and respect, must be taught if children were to succeed in school. The tone in which he wrote conveyed some sense of elitism, as has been noted by later commentators (Lewis, 1993, 2000; West, 1997). Nonetheless, the tribulations of racial oppression, Du Bois believed, required tough measures -- with tough-sounding words to match his strategies for social justice.
In this paper I will first analyze and set forth Du Bois's problematic of structural situatedness. The next section applies structural situatedness as a way to understand Du Bois on the significance of education in general. In that section his debate with Booker T. Washington is highlighted. The next section knits together several of Du Bois's works on the family and education. The implications of a Du Boisian framework and its lessons for today are treated in the paper's final section.
Structural situatedness as a conceptual tool was integral to Du Bois's life-long project for social justice. Structural situatedness accordingly is a problematic by which we can interpret the varied ways that Du Bois sought to study and to struggle against oppression. Initially, Du Bois's training in the social sciences was the basis of inquiries which he believed would inform the solutions to racial problems. Gathering facts, analyzing them, and then presenting the carefully drawn conclusions would help to dispel ignorance and thereby help to alleviate the burdens of racism in America, or so he believed at the time. The failure for this path to be a primary vector of struggle became obvious to Du Bois as the years progressed and the social conditions of Blacks remained unjust. Occupying the energies of his later life were the political commentaries and journalistic work as well as his Pan-African organizing efforts (Du Bois, 1945) and his proposed "Encyclopedia Africana" (Gates, 2000; Lewis, 1993: 379), all of which he had worked on during his earlier years as well.
What unites the different approaches used by Du Bois across his lifetime is the structural perspective, which interrelated the larger contexts and conditions with the actions and life chances of Blacks in American society. Du Bois held that extra-individual and -group contexts conditioned human actions and behaviors, making such actions understandable in light of those larger structures. Such a meta-theoretical tool also meant that he sought to avoid restricting analysis in terms of a fixed and unchanging notion of race -- a notion that justified racist behavior and policies, whether official or personal, in terms of racial hierarchies of social worth and recognition. He thereby sought to counter the biological determinism of the 19th Century which was often rife within some of the conventional social scientists of that era (e.g., Herbert Spencer).
To so argue for a common thread across Du Bois's long years does not mean that he reached the same conclusions throughout his life or held the same positions, theoretically or normatively. Rather, it is to argue that the concept of structural situatedness was a meta-theoretical tool that Du Bois employed in order to relate socio-historical conditions to human actions. This section will first sketch Du Bois's much vaunted sociological research and then analyze its animating problematic of structural situatedness. The implications of such a problematic are discussed in terms of his notions of the "Veil" and "double consciousness." Finally, this section will briefly mention his growing disillusionment with social science as a tool of liberation.
Du Bois was trained in the social science and historical methods of his day at Harvard and at the University of Berlin (Lewis, 1993). Du Bois believed that adherence to the scientific method would uncover the truth, in this case the truth about the causes of Black problems (Du Bois, 1898b; see also Green & Driver, 1978: Editors's Introduction). He believed he could gather information and use it to promote better public policies. Social science could be used in the struggle for social justice and in the creation of a better society. Several works exemplify the empirical side of Du Bois. The Philadelphia Negro is perhaps the most famous (1899). In addition, he organized and contributed to a series of annual research projects, known collectively as the Atlanta studies and published in the early 1900s (see Brueggemann, 1997; Lewis, 1993). All were in-depth studies requiring meticulous adherence to the standards of social science (Wright, 2002).
Du Bois did not ask whether we might use social science critically in ways tackling race problems. Such would be a question for later critics of mainstream social science. Rather, Du Bois, believed that the "truth" of what was happening to Blacks could be critical of the status quo if properly theorized. As his biographer David Levering Lewis indicated that Du Bois was aware that the sponsors of his Philadelphia project hoped to use the information that he gathered and analyzed in ways that would justify the "clean up" of the Seventh Ward (Lewis, 1993). Du Bois, nevertheless, professed his support of truth, scientifically derived, during his earlier years (e.g., Du Bois, 1909: 210; 1940: Ch. 4: 593; see also Gordon, 2000).
What central idea grounded Du Bois's personal and professional convictions? Structural situatedness informed his worldview and his understanding of the ontology of society. Situatedness for Du Bois meant that we could grasp the connections between places, peoples, events, and families in terms of a broader historical and geographical set of factors, factors which have influenced the outcomes locally. Crucial for Du Bois's theoretical framework was the implicit understanding that the phenomena of the world, especially the social world, are not isolated. If we are to get at the truth in a scientific way, he averred in early essays (e.g., in 1898 in "The Study of the Negro Problems"), we must study the conditions together with the observed actions. Specifically, this meant that we must understand human actions, here the observed behaviors of African Americans, in relation to their social context and the historical development of that context (Gordon, 2000). Although Du Bois wrote this with regard to studying the so-called Negro Problem, as the title of his essay indicated, it is also applicable to how he understood the nature of the world as such (Outlaw, 2000).
As a further example: Blacks in America and around the world were also positioned within the larger national and international processes of history (e.g., Du Bois, 1896 and 1915b). We can understand the particular aspects of African Americans, including level of educational attainment, wealth, professions, and so forth, in terms of their historical trajectory as part of a broader and violent diaspora and in terms of their subsequent social relationships of slavery and later racist oppression (Du Bois, 1920c). For example, Du Bois studied the Black family in America with regard to history of slavery and its detrimental effects on family structure and life. Du Bois performed such analyses in The Philadelphia Negro (Du Bois, 1899) and in other works, such as his essays collected in Du Bois On Sociology and Black Community (Green & Driver, 1978). Du Bois was an early pioneer in a tradition which includes Eric Williams (1944) and Walter Rodney (1981); it is a tradition of scholarship which analyzes European interactions with African peoples as part of a wider set of globalizing processes.
From the structural perspective of Du Bois we can also ask how the global and local interconnect, speaking in a spatial terminology. Do global, or extra-local, processes impact on the localities? Do local events in actions influence global events? To illustrate the situational idea let me quote the passage from a speech Du Bois delivered in 1909 regarding the scientific study of cultures:
It is, to be sure, puzzling to know why the Sudan should linger a thousand years in culture behind the valley of the Seine, but it is no more puzzling than the fact that the valley of the Thames was miserably backward as compared with the banks of the Tiber. Climate, human contact, facilities of communication, and what we call accident have played greater part in the rise of culture among nations: to ignore these and to assert dogmatically that the present distribution of culture is a fair index of the distribution of human ability and desert is to make an assertion for which there is not the slightest scientific warrant. (Du Bois, 1909: 204-5)
Du Bois was especially targeting conclusions drawn by comparing cultures in a static (i.e., ahistorical) way.
There are certain implications to such a meta-theoretical element in structural situatedness. A phenomenon such as race does not have an essential, or timeless and static, quality to it. Although it must be noted that in his early essay, "The Conservation of Races," he did hint at some ineffable quality that is race; nevertheless Du Bois did not ascribe to biological determinism and its racially hierarchical schemas (Du Bois, 1897). Rather, the phenomenon under study is connected to processes outside of it, but which conditioned its manifestation in particular places. It is such phenomena, the stuff of scientific investigation, that are to be observed and analyzed, and then synthesized as conclusions in terms of the conditions in which the phenomena occurred.
A further implication of structural situatedness: knowing the historical processes that have generated oppression can help in the struggle against it. Hence, there arises the need for those trained in matters beyond the vocational training for specific jobs. Our knowledge should guide our actions, he wrote in the "The Negro College" (1933: 182). Those who possess such knowledge are part of the "Talented Tenth," as Du Bois would memorably call them. Such educated and motivated leaders would serve, he often had argued, as the guiding force in the struggle against racial oppression. This theme will be addressed in the next section.
Du Bois's framework of structural situatedness expressed further spatial imagery with the concept of the color line. Indeed, the color line captured the way to approach the phenomena of racism in America. It is the meta-theoretical point of departure for his social scientific research as well as his other more "polemical" writings. The term color line was not a new concept in African American thought. For example, Frederick Douglass wrote an essay on "The Color Line" (1881). A contemporary of Du Bois's, Charles Waddell Chestnutt, had gathered a set of stories in a volume entitled The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line (Chesnutt, 1899). The color line established boundaries and located people, not only in terms of their available opportunities, but also in terms of their standpoints for understanding others on the opposite side. And stretching along the color line was the "Veil."
Du Bois used the image of the "Veil" to depict the filters through which people viewed others in a racialized America, and to indicate that a veil hides, or at least obscures, the world. The Veil is an evocative image; in "Of Beauty and Death" in Darkwater he wrote:
And then -- the Veil. It drops as drops the night on Southern seas.... There is Hate behind it, and Cruelty and Tears.... and yet it hangs there, this Veil, between Then and Now, between Pale and Colored, and Black and White -- between You and Me.... Listen.... to these Voices from within the Veil for they portray...hurt. (Du Bois, 1920a: 246)
The Veil in this passage articulates structural situatedness in a more literary manner, one which allowed Du Bois to present the objects of empirical study as humans with recognizable human emotions. Would oppressors recognize the humanity of those oppressed? Would they even recognize themselves as oppressors?
This situatedness arising from the color line and from the Veil not only was characteristic of the "objects" of social science, the oppressed and disadvantaged people. Significantly, the situatedness also characterized the observer, for Du Bois himself was also positioned within these processes. He was affected as well, as he wrote in The Souls of Black Folk: "And, finally, need I add that I who speak here am bone of the bone and flesh of the flesh of them that live within the Veil?" (Du Bois, 1903a: "Forethought"). This also meant that Du Bois was not fully removed from the social environment of those he studied, as he would indicate years later in his autobiographical Dusk of Dawn (1940). There he wrote of his reaction to the news that a Black man was lynched in Georgia in 1899 for allegedly killing his landlord's wife: "one could not be a calm, cool and detached scientist while Negroes were lynched, murdered and starved" (Du Bois, 1940: Ch. 4: 603).
Being on one side of the Veil offers a vantage point from which to observe and, for Du Bois, to criticize the existing social relations (Gates & Oliver, 1999). Ironically, living behind this Veil would have prompted him to avoid the problems that beset the armchair researchers that he criticized. Conclusions to be avoided, he argued, were those from the social scientists who studied African Americans from afar. They often tended, he wrote, to (over)generalize on the basis of a small number of Blacks or of observations made while traveling in an automobile (Green & Driver, 1978:. 36-37).
The color line and a life behind the Veil generated what Du Bois termed "double consciousness." In The Souls of Black Folk he wrote poetically that
. . . the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, -- a world which yields him not true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness -- an American, a Negro: two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings: two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. (Du Bois, 1903a: Ch. I)
The heroic battles fought by Blacks against dehumanization emphasize their humanity in the very acts of struggle against oppression.
Du Bois's concept of double consciousness has raised many questions among later scholars. It has psychological overtones: not only in its effects but also as a potential guide to achieve a solution based on a distinctiveness that implied equality rather than inferiority (Bruce, 1992). For example, Molefi Asante as a foremost exponent of Afrocentrism foregrounds the heritage of African Americans and the commonalities that those of the African diaspora share (1987). Asante, and others like Na'im Akbar (1984), argue that returning to one's roots can make an African American a whole person again. Double consciousness also has Hegelian overtones (McSwine, 1998). Individuals, as well as races for Du Bois, progress through self-development and self-education (Bildung in German). This notion of the development of the self via experience also has a literary expression. The concept of double consciousness articulates a literary trope that African American writers have wielded when representing the perils of Blacks in a racist America. Writers like James Weldon Johnson in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912); Paul Laurence Dunbar in, e.g., "We Wear the Mask" (1913: 71; originally published in 1895); and Ralph Ellison in the Invisible Man (1995; originally published in 1952) wrote of the consequences of being dehumanized in America.
Double consciousness, it can be argued, implicates situatedness. This is the situatedness of the oppressed as well as the situatedness of a critical observer, one who is her- or himself also one of the oppressed. In that sense then Du Bos anticipated, without fully elaborating, a theoretical framework which other scholars would develop. Later writers would challenge the dominant epistemology of the social sciences, including for example, Michel Foucault (1970), Donna Haraway (1991); bell hooks (1990); Adrienne Rich (1986); Edward Said (1979); and Gayatri Spivak (1988). Each offered new questions to probe and alternative methods by which to conduct social inquiry.
What I would like to highlight about such literary devices, like the Veil and double consciousness, is that those tropes informed not only his political commentary and exhortations to struggle, but also arguably his social-scientific research. Du Bois used such imagery in Souls and Darkwater during the same period in which he was very productive with his social science research projects. The literary tools existed at the meta-theoretical level of his social science and were implied without always being explicit. Du Bois's literary imagination was thus an allied weapon for social critique. The fusion of literary device with social science epistemology is both provocative and potentially contradictory; further discussion of it, however, is beyond the scope of this paper.
As time went on, Du Bois became more disillusioned about social science's role in liberation. In 1933, Du Bois indicated that social struggle could be "scientifically" guided (Du Bois, 1933: 185). By the 1940s, however, Du Bois's positive tone about the utility of social science for social justice was changing, as expressed, for example, in his autobiographical Dusk of Dawn (1940: Ch. 4). Social science -- a fortiori, social scientists -- maintained biases that infected the conclusions drawn from the research. Du Bois wrote in "The Prospect of the World Without Race Conflict" (1944) that the
insistent clinging to the older pattern of race thought ... has for years held back the progress of the social sciences. The social sciences from the beginning were deliberately used from the beginning to prove the inferiority of the majority of the people of the world.... History declared that the Negro had no history. Biology exaggerated the physical differences among men. Economics even today cannot talk straight on colonial imperialism. Psychology has not yet recovered from the shame of its 'intelligence' tests and its record of 'conclusions' during the first World War. (Du Bois, 1944: 299).
While he did not totally abandon a commitment to social science in his later years (see Du Bois, 1968), Du Bois's tone in that quotation presented quite a contrast with his earlier optimism about social science research catalyzing social progress.
Despite the move towards political commentary and critique, Du Bois nonetheless retained a sense of structural situatedness in his writings. His later works, e.g., The World and Africa (1947), illustrate my contention. The structural situatedness as an organizing concept in Du Bois's project has implications for education in general and for the role of the family in particular. To this topic we now turn.
To say that Du Bois valued education is an understatement. Although much of what Du Bois wrote focused on college, he was aware of the importance of primary and secondary education. For Du Bois, as for others (e.g., Woodson, 1933), education was absolutely necessary for the uplift of the race. Addressing education also posed several pertinent questions for Du Bois. How can the struggle for racial justice proceed? In other words, who should lead the struggle? What should be the content of that curriculum? In this section the concept of situatedness will provide the backdrop for us to examine Du Bois's views on the significance of education. Du Bois's debate with Booker T. Washington over the type of education needed for the struggle against oppression will be the main focus.
Much has been written on the differences between Booker T. Washington and Du Bois. But they are similar in that both possessed some sense of location that grounded their respective analyses and potential solutions to racial oppression. Indeed, Washington himself could be seen as dealing with the situatedness of Blacks in the U.S.A. as a whole and in the South in particular. Washington's solution was "industrial education" in practical jobs like farming, construction, and housekeeping tasks. He argued that vocational training was better suited for the circumstances that Blacks encountered on a daily basis. Classical education in the form of Greek and Latin -- or in French grammar and concert piano which Washington had criticized in "The Awakening of the Negro" (1896) -- did not help Blacks live in any practical way.
Washington concentrated on the factors closer to home and everyday life. He oriented the range of possible action to what was of practical importance locally. This was crucial to Washington's strategy of racial uplift in the South where Blacks and Whites had lived together for generations. Washington believed that Whites would come to grasp the worth of Blacks who contributed to the community's economic progress (Washington, 1901).
From a Du Boisian perspective, there were at least three problems with Washington's strategy. First, according to Du Bois, education often tended to support the established order rather than necessarily improving society (Du Bois, 1920b: 206). The Southern public schools of his era, Du Bois wrote, all too often trained Black children to be servants, laborers, mechanics -- "the handmaidens of production" (Du Bois, 1920b: 209; also see Bullock, 1967: Ch. VI). According to Du Bois, many Whites in America, including some White philanthropists, wanted Blacks to be educated in occupations with which they had historically been associated: namely, farming, carpentry, sewing, cooking, domestic tasks, etc. (Du Bois, 1915a: 124; 1918: 168). These were exactly the sort of occupations for which Washington sought to educate his students (Du Bois, 1944). For Du Bois, especially the later socialist Du Bois, the limited range of education and occupations available to Blacks furthered economic exploitation and hence helped to perpetuate oppression.
The second problem with Washington's educational philosophy, Du Bois believed, was that industrial education trained people for jobs, rather than training them for life. Du Bois argued that Washington's industrial training concentrated too narrowly on manual skills. Education must train the whole person (Du Bois, 1920b: 210; also Du Bois, 1903b). A better strategy would not only educate students for jobs, but also educate them in the knowledge of the broader world, as well as train them in morality and character. He opined in "The Immortal Child" essay of Darkwater that we develop "human intelligence by which drudgery may be lessened and beauty widened" (1920b: 206). From such an education Du Bois optimistically believed that great leaders would emerge. An exclusive focus on industrial education would not train the leaders, Du Bois argued, that were necessary to organize and animate such a titanic struggle.
The third problem with Washington's strategy, Du Bois argued, was that the narrowness of a practical industrial education did not provide the basis for trenchant critiques of oppression. It assumed that the social situation was more or less given, especially in terms of what could and could not be changed. Because practicality centered on the here and now, it tended to reinforce the status quo. Du Bois noted that a Washingtonian educational policy only indirectly addressed the issue of lynching and other forms of oppression. It did not tackle those injustices head-on, which Du Bois advocated via constant public appeals and organized actions (Du Bois, 1911).
Du Bois believed that a broad education strengthened the intellectual resources necessary for the struggles against racial oppression. Foreign languages and music could become ways by which one appreciated the intricacies and complexities of the world. Today we might say that the liberal arts promote critical thinking skills. Education therefore must include more than the content of industrial training otherwise one would not escape the narrow societal confines of the present situation.
It is important to observe that Du Bois did not ignore industrial education completely. His perspective embracing the structural specificity of African Americans would preclude this. Rather, Du Bois did not think that the content of education should be exclusively industrial in orientation for all Blacks, especially the "talented ones" (Du Bois, 1903b). A broad education was especially crucial for the teachers of teachers: that is to say, the professors in Black colleges that trained public school teachers (1898a: 836; 1903b: 852). It also must be noted that Black colleges, even Tuskegee, did not abandon classical education in the liberal arts tradition. Many colleges continued to teach courses in both liberal arts and industrial education (Bullock, 1967: 164-167).
What was the content of this broad education that Du Bois advocated? Du Bois focused mostly on curriculum related to college education, especially with regard to fostering racial uplift and social struggle. Du Bois's sense of structural situatedness points us to a principle of curriculum content: more specifically, a point of departure. Du Bois argued that schools should begin the educational process from where Blacks were situated in a socio-historical sense and move towards more general principles. He wrote in "The Negro College" (1933):
[S]tarting with present conditions and using the facts and the knowledge of the present situation of American Negroes, the Negro university expands toward the possession and the conquest of all knowledge. It seeks from a beginning of the history of the Negro in American and in Africa to interpret all history; from a beginning of social development among Negro slaves and freedmen in America and Negro tribes and kingdoms in Africa, to interpret and understand the social development of all mankind in all ages. It seeks to teach modern science of matter and life from the surroundings and habits and aptitudes of American Negroes and thus lead up to understanding of life and matter in the universe. (Du Bois, 1933: 181)
Such a statement supports Pan-African curricula in university departments of Black or Africana Studies. Many have discussed Du Bois's Pan-African content of education (e.g., Alridge, 1999), especially as a school curriculum at any level, whether primary, secondary, or tertiary.
Let us note what could be called the combined, or perhaps "hybrid" (to use the language of later cultural theorists), dimensions of Du Bois's educational content. In The Souls of Black Folk, he wrote that Blacks had much to offer America, despite the double consciousness that burdened African Americans. He wrote:
The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife, -- this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face. (Du Bois, 1903a: Ch. I)
Both Blacks and Whites, among many others, had contributed to the social whole that was America -- and all deserved their stories told with equal respect and dignity.
Moreover, the hybrid content of knowledge is also evident in the structure of The Souls of Black Folk itself. As David Levering Lewis indicated, the very the form of Souls is framed in terms of both White and Black ways of knowing and expression (Lewis, 1993). The book is a powerful melange of Anglo-European allusions as well as the Sorrow songs of the slaves and oppressed people.
In terms of his education and personal history Du Bois himself is the embodiment of a hybrid content of knowledge. In The Souls of Black Folk he wrote:
I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn or condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land? (Du Bois, 1903a: Ch. VI)
Du Bois himself is structurally situated: at once restricted by social circumstances in America, but well located in terms of the knowledge of the ages and from all thinkers. It is a knowledge which emerged from friends talking within a familiar dwelling, as Du Bois intimated of the architecture. And it is knowledge framed in terms of a cosmic architectonics, wherein (with allusions to Plato's so-called Allegory of the Cave) "the caves of evening" join the solid, practical earth with the distant visions of the heavens.
It is in the nature of their respective critiques and solutions that differentiate Du Bois from Washington. Their respective interpretations of the social situatedness of African Americans pointed to different ways to theorize the oppression of Blacks in America, and indeed around the world. As a consequence, Du Bois put much faith in the broad education, motivation, and selflessness of educated Blacks to correct social wrongs and to change the world, as he was later to suggest in his essay, "The Talented Tenth Memorial Address" (Du Bois, 1948).
According to Cornel West, Du Bois placed too much optimism in the role he accorded education: both in educating Whites about their ignorance of Blacks (with the hope that more knowledge would lead to greater tolerance), and on the role of the talented Black leaders in effecting change (with the emphasis on top-down change to motivate and uplift everyone) (West, 1997). Nevertheless, Du Bois's insistence on the importance of education seems warranted, even if his expectations for education and the educated leaders were overly optimistic. Such failures or imperfections, of course, do not undermine the importance of education for social change. Rather, they lead us to conceive how education still might be helpful in both practical and even abstract ways. In such a spirit the family and education can be discussed.
Du Bois himself in various pieces provided insights into the role of the family and education. But he did not systematically elaborate on such a role. Nonetheless, his structural approach to understanding society, as reconstructed herein, does allow us to better interpret how a DuBoisian-inspired approach could address such an issue. This section will sketch how Du Bois situated the family and education within the larger social context.
Du Bois regarded children as vital for the future of a community. His own personal tragedy of the loss of his young son, Burghardt, to diphtheria emphasized this point, as "The Passing of the First Born" in Souls expressed (Du Bois, 1903a). If children are the future, then they must be educated for the future. In the essay "The Immortal Child" in Darkwater, Du Bois wrote (in the gendered language of his time):
If a man shall he live again? We do not know. But this we do know, that our children's children live forever and grow and develop toward perfection as they are trained. All human problems, then, center in the Immortal Child and his education is the problem of problems. (Du Bois, 1920b: 193)
What then for Du Bois is the, or at least one, suggested solution to this "problem of problems"?
As gleaned from his varied writings, Du Bois indicated that parents occupied a significant place in their children's education through what I will term indirect and direct ways. In their direct role, parents trained children in character and social skills, both so necessary as a precondition for formal education and for social interaction (Du Bois, 1938: 1050). The indirect role of parents was located in their supportive functions. Parents could reinforce, or not, the need and desire for education through their attitudes about schooling. For example, in The Souls of Black Folk Du Bois wrote of his experiences while teaching at a rural Tennessee school house. He noted that he had encountered a few parents who expressed some skepticism about the worth of formal education (Du Bois, 1903a: 49). On the other land, he was not remiss in praising the parents who valued education for their children. "They know that intelligence and self-development are the only means by which the Negro is to win his way in the modern world. They persist in pushing their children on through the highest courses. May they always continue to do so.... (Du Bois, 1915a)." Supportive parental attitudes would greatly assist the education processes, prompting those reluctant to go to school, and rewarding those who did.
In addition, the financial situation of the parents exerted great impact on children, especially with regard to attendance. The structural situatedness of family (i.e., their socio-economic context) meant that parents can influence when and if children attend school. Because child labor was often important for the family's welfare, especially in rural areas, harvest time often meant that the school children were absent from school (Du Bois, 1903a: Ch. IV). This was a common practice throughout the rural south where children regularly had to leave school to perform farm labor (Du Bois, 1926). The lesson to be learned, and arguably repeated to those who make public policy today, is straightforward. Regardless of attitude towards education, factors that influence the parents's life circumstances can influence -- negatively in such cases as financial difficulties -- the children's chance for good education.
The direct, or formative, role of parents was emphasized in a forceful manner during a commencement address he delivered at his alma mater, Fisk University, in 1938. It was entitled "The Revelation of Saint Orgne the Damned." In the speech Du Bois said that the family is more than a biological unit and it has more than biological functions. Indeed, it is the basic unit to prepare children to become educated in schools and to train them in what he deemed good and proper manners. He spoke:
Unless a new type of Negro family takes the burden of this duty, we are destined to be, as we are too largely today, a bad-mannered, unclean crowd of ill-bred young men and women who are under the impression that they are educated.
I will make two comments on this passage.
First, the passage on the family as a cultural unit reinforces my contention that structural situatedness is a central theme within Du Bois's works. The position of family within larger social processes illumines how vital the family is for children's intellectual development. Du Bois would underscore this in a later essay commenting on the Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Du Bois recognized the landmark nature of the case for Blacks. But he also despaired, writing that there were also costs arising from school desegregation: "race solidarity" would suffer and eventually be replaced by "world humanity" (Du Bois, 1956: 283). He added, "the teaching of Negro history will leave the school and with it that brave story of Negro resistance. This teaching will be taught more largely in the home or in the church" (Du Bois, 1956: 283-284). It seems clear that for Du Bois parents and other adult members of the family should have some measure of education themselves so as to be able to impart this knowledge to their children.
Second, the passage from "The Revelation of Saint Orgne the Damned" also expressed what has been called Du Bois's Victorian attitudes (West, 1997). He often labeled people in his scientific studies and social commentaries in terms which today would be considered judgmental, even derogatory. He would classify people as of a "better class" or of a "worse class." He regularly indicated that African Americans in the time after emancipation did not possess the level of "civilization" of other peoples or races. Some, such as Cornel West, have considered this to exemplify Du Bois's elitist tendencies, and to reflect his Northern, middle-class life style and education (West, 1997).
This paper seeks neither to simply criticize Du Bois nor to defend him; rather, it wishes to critically utilize his ideas. In that spirit, we should also recall that in Du Bois's time the level of educational attainment was less than today. In 1898 Du Bois published an essay on "The Study of Negro Problems." Based on sociological research he described Blacks as follows: "nearly half of the race are absolutely illiterate, only a minority of the other half have a thorough common school, and but a remnant are liberally educated" (Du Bois, 1898: 73). Du Bois continually presented data to this effect over the years, as, for example, in "The Immortal Child" (Du Bois, 1920b: 211) and "The Revelation of Saint Orgne the Damned" (Du Bois, 1938). By 1950 he reported marked improvements in literacy and educational achievements, but still lamented that "as a group, American Negroes are still in the lower ranks of learning and adaptability to modern conditions" (Du Bois, 1950: 284).
While Du Bois did use some phrases that conveyed negative value judgments, it is important to remember that he sought to interpret why people might exhibit certain traits or characteristics, rather than considering them to be eternally and essentially uneducated, immoral, unkempt, and unteachable. Such, I would argue, is one of Du Bois's important contributions, not only for social justice, but also for theorizing everyday life and education. It is a positive feature of his framework of structural situatedness.
In this final section of the paper I will outline some of the lessons we can glean from Du Bois in our present age of contrasts. In some ways the status of African Americans has noticeably improved since Du Bois was writing and researching. Literacy and educational attainment, as well as wealth and social status, have risen. More Blacks occupy top leadership posts in America's public and private sectors. Such examples are doubtless a legacy of Du Bois's untiring efforts for social justice. Nonetheless, de facto racial problems, like institutional racism and the discriminatory effects of societal actions, largely have replaced the predominant de jure racism of his era. Du Bois therefore still provides us with useful lessons. We should take seriously the implications of his thematic of structural situatedness. In that spirit I will enumerate in this section Joyce Epstein's model of family/school/community involvement and then outline several Du Boisian-inspired insights applicable for improving education today.
Joyce Epstein, Director of the Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University, has put forth a highly regarded model of the components of family/school/community partnerships in the educational process. Her model contains six types of involvement, each of which entails expectations, responsibilities, and possible outcomes for all participating: (a) support of the parenting process and the creation of a positive home environment; (b) development of effective channels of communication between all participants; (c) recruitment of parents as volunteers for school activities; (d) encouragement for parents to become more active in their children's homework; (e) incorporation of parents into the school's decision making processes; and (f) collaboration of schools, businesses, and parents in the provision of services (Epstein, 1995).
Arguably, Du Bois might accept the basic contours of Epstein's model of family involvement. Epstein's framework, nonetheless, is abstract in its own way because it makes certain assumptions that may not hold true for specific populations in America. Let me suggest five insights inspired by Du Bois that could concretize family involvement for African Americans in the 21st Century. Given the limitations of space I can only briefly sketch what otherwise would require detailed treatises in their own right.
Insight 1: We cannot be so rooted in place and particular circumstances that we do not theorize the connections -- the origins, influences, and consequences -- between times and places. What affects us here and now might have its origins elsewhere and indeed "elsewhen." In turn, our actions have consequences for others. Such interconnections can transform us through transforming how we view the world. And how we view the world is also a part of how we are educated (both well and broadly) to view the world. As a theoretical consequence, our own consciousness and the resulting knowledge(s) implicate the wider processes of history. Moreover, a Du Boisian structural situatedness provides the basis for critiques of natural conceptions of race or gender; notions of race and gender with unchanging qualities (and often subordinate status) give way to an understanding that human actions within specific contexts are influenced by geo-historically derived conditions. Significantly, human actions have the potential to alter those conditions as well.
Insight 2: Formal schools certainly play their educative role, a Du Boisian perspective would hold today, as would the community in which our children live and learn. Nevertheless, while it may take a whole community to educate a child, there is constant pressure brought to bear on those very community bonds. American society is pulled between communal notions of solidarity and the atomistic implications of some dominant conceptions of individual achievement. As a result, we are witnessing in many ways a loosening (although not obliteration) of ties to place and community. Under such structural circumstances, the family takes on a major responsibility. It must reassert the nurturing aspects of community ties. One meaningful way to achieve this is via family involvement in children's education.
Insight 3: The family is not solely a biological arrangement. From Du Bois's structural perspective the family is more a cultural unit, as he understood it. The family must provide the precondition of civility that is at the heart of relationships between people who are not necessarily related by kinship ties. The values and behaviors taught by lesson or by deed are the lessons that can influence children for a lifetime. Love and respect for others is priceless, while hatred of difference is socially destructive. A group's progress, not to mention societal progress as a whole, depends on civility and mutual respect. As a corollary, a Du Bois for today would challenge family members to strive for personal excellence themselves, even as they strive to provide the best education for their children.
Insight 4: The theoretical perspective of structural situatedness emphasizes the social context as a crucial influence on human actions. The context sets the parameters in which individuals make decisions, offering both opportunities and constraints on behavior and information. In that regard, poverty still puts tremendous strain on education, both with regard to schools and with regard to families. Poverty is correlated with lower educational success and poorer schools often have lower scores on standardized entrance, exit, and performance tests. From a Du Boisian approach more resources are needed to bring equity into spending on schools across the nation.
Insight 5: Du Bois offers us lessons on a curricula for the new millennium. A Pan-African curriculum, such as Du Bois advocated, exemplify what has been called multi-culturalism. Over the last several decades America has been fighting domestic "culture wars." Proponents of multi-culturalism press for inclusion of un- or under-represented authors and perspectives. Detractors use the cry of "political correctness" to criticize the multi-cultural movement. A great-books curriculum, which opponents of multi-culturalism often support, emphasizes universal themes and assumes an alleged wisdom of the ages that speaks to all of us across the gulf of time and regardless of place. A great-books list seeks to unify a country, a people, or a citizenry around a core of shared ideas. Some great-books advocates argue that multi-cultural curricula are either politicized (because there is an alleged underlying anti-Western agenda), or else are "fluff" (so as to create a "feel-good experience" for some students).
A holistic perspective like structural situatedness would ask how is it that the particular works came to be included on a great-books list. What were the political and social climates that excluded some writers from the list, or else prevented people from developing the literacy necessary to write in the first instance? Indeed, following Spivak (1988), could the subalterns speak in a language that the dominant culture recognized? From such a structural perspective the argument thus would be that a multi-cultural approach to education and knowledge is a matter of corrective justice. In addition, multi-culturalism is not necessarily anti-Western, but rather illustrative of the myriad of interconnections wherein the West is influenced by and, in turn, influences other non-Western cultures. The creation of such multi-cultural lists of knowledge, it can be argued, would need a host of trans-disciplinary scholars, with multiple talents and varied experiences, who would seek to understand how wisdom arises from diverse sources and, indeed, how wisdom might be defined differently in various locations and times. Such multi-culturalism would strive to reach the students's own educational starting points and then expand their horizons to the world itself, as Du Bois himself indicated.
A new millennium has dawned, and we find that Du Bois is still relevant. Du Bois speaks to us not because his writings on education are fully applicable today and not because he understood all about the educational process for students of any age group. His own theoretical apparatus, structural situatedness, would preclude such ahistorical conclusions. Rather, we listen to Du Bois because his theoretical approach provides insights into the structural dimensions that undergird education, dimensions as salient today as they were during his era.
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W.E.B. Du Bois and the Socio-Political Structures of Education
by Robert W. Williams
Family involvement in education often has been justified in terms of parental rights or positive educational outcomes. Such justifications are often cast as models and useful strategies to follow. Yet largely absent from the practical advice are the contextual dimensions that condition involvement in the first instance: namely, race, class, gender, among other demographic aspects. This paper focuses on understanding a way to ground the role of family involvement for African Americans today.
The paper's theoretical point of departure is W.E.B. Du Bois, the tireless fighter for African American rights and freedoms. Du Bois utilized a structural approach in both his social science research and his political commentaries. It is an approach which situates the phenomena under study, such as individuals or social groupings, within the contexts of their lives and interactions. As a theoretical consequence, we can better understand how "facts" emerge from specific conditions and how changed conditions thereby might change the facts. As a practical consequence, social movements gain tools for promoting social justice.
Du Bois created a framework of analysis that can be used fruitfully to understand the structural importance of Black family involvement in education: namely, the specificity of African Americans within a larger society and as part of a larger diaspora. Illuminating such specificity is important because of the lingering racism in the 21st century and the legacy of racial oppression in America. The paper will present Du Bois's insights into the socio-political contexts of education, as well as into the content of instruction. In addition, the paper will sketch several possible guidelines, extracted from his thoughts, that might be useful for a new millennium of education in America.
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