"Heredity and the Public Schools"  [1904]  by W.E.B. Du Bois

"Heredity and the Public Schools." 1904. Pp. 45-52 in W.E.B. Du Bois, Pamphlets and Leaflets. Edited by Herbert Aptheker. White Plains, NY: Kraus-Thomson Organization Limited, 1986.

Robert W. Williams's Notes:
1. I added [sic] to words contained in the original, but which nowadays would be spelled differently.
2. In cases where words seemed to have been excluded or missing from the pamphlet used by Aptheker the editor, he added several words to Du Bois's original text; these are indicated by words enclosed in square brackets (except for [sic]). I added the paragraph numbers enclosed in square brackets.

"Heredity and the Public Schools"
A Lecture Delivered under the Auspices of the
Principals' Association of the Colored Schools
of Washington, D.C.
[{Aptheker's heading.}]

[{Aptheker's note located at the bottom of first page.}]
An eleven-page pamphlet (1904). [Printed in Washington, D.C., by R.L. Pendleton. This is the text of a lecture given by Du Bois on March 25, 1904: the lecture reflected the great influence at the time of the "science' of eugenics, which was used to justify racist practices. A copy of this pamphlet was kindly supplied by the Howard University library.​—​"ED.]

[{Aptheker added the following at the bottom of the last page.}]
In the original, the world "but" appears here; this, however, seems an error, missing Du Bois's point. I have therefore changed the word to "by."

Page 45»

[1]   There is perhaps no single subject upon which so much has in recent years been said, and from which so many widely varying conclusions have been drawn as upon the subject of heredity. And I want to speak to you about it because I continually find among our thinking classes much of misapprehension as to the real implications of certain arguments which have been used in regard to our race and which have without doubt tended to discourage many of our best workers with the prospects of successfully uplifting a nation often million men. And I particularly want to speak to you because you are teachers. I know you have been told this​—​have had the trite saying dinned into your ears, that the teacher above all men has the moulding of the next generation and according to his will can raise or lower the standards of efficiency and goodness. Consciously or unconsciously you have answered this question by throwing off a large part of your responsibility on that magic word. heredity. Nor is the fault yours, for the same shifting of burdens is seen all about you​—​for the evil of the world in politics, religion, social reform and race contact we have seen the world almost scuttling to place on the shoulders of this new god of the Philistines the responsibility for all evil and shortcoming and mistake. Indeed, heredity with tis becomes a sort of dignified rag-bag into which we carelessly or impatiently put the ideals and dreams of what we fear was an over-credulous past.

[2]   It would indeed be queer if we as parts of this nation escaped this contagion. We have not escaped it. Some of us have already thrown up our hands in half despair. saying the burden before us is the burden of shoulders broader than ours​—​of an intelligence all knowing, of powers infinite in range and unwearied in doing. Others of us have made a brave appearance and spoken confidently and yet within has lurked the fear and the doubt.

[3]   It is a shadow of that old picture​—​the swaying gray-haired man, lifting his arms to God in dark despair: "It is enough, O Lord, I am not better than my fathers."

[4]   To no class of us is this tendency to despair of the very constitution of things more prevalent than among us as teachers. Nor is the reason far to seek​—​we see the Page 46» material raw and in the moulding and we are in a profession where above all others the doctrine of heredity as enunciated to day ​[sic]​—​now carelessly, now vaguely, now curiously​—​has been deemed especially and peculiarly applicable.

[5]   For this reason and because of similar signs in the air I want today to go with you frankly to the kernel of a problem which we usually hover about and whisper over, but seldom frankly and openly and exhaustively discuss. And this question is: Is the average Negro child capable of essentially the same training and development as the average white child?

[6]   Now to answer this question it is necessary to examine certain fundamental ideas. And you will pardon me if I say right here that the development of this subject must of necessity be dry and not entertaining and that unless you work with me we will not accomplish all that I want to do in laying before certain ideas.

[7]   One of the first questions that comes to every inquiring mind is: how did things happen to be as they are? Here is earth and air and sea and sky​—​above all here are men curious in thought and ability, intricate in body and muscle​—​how did they happen? and ​[sic] above all how did they happen just so?

[8]   Now the first answer that thinking men gave to these question was: these men were made, and they were made in the form they are for certain obvious purposes: here is a hand, it is clearly made for grasping​—​separate fingers for twining themselves, joints for bending, tendrils and cords and blocks and tackles for tightening the grasp; hardened extremities to save the wear and tear and hard tough covering within for rough usage. Was there ever a more obvious case of a thing created for a certain definite purpose? Or look this being over. Where in the human body can you find accident: here high in front are eyes​—​no mistake​—​they were not placed in the heels, or the small of the back, but aloft in a tower to survey the world; notice the balancing of this mass of 150 lbs. of matter​—​see the muscles; and its guiding, its delicate telegraphy; where does it center? away up out of the dust in a carefully covered casket of marvellous ​[sic] workmanship. I remember once that Professor James, the greatest of American psychologists, said to a class in which I was: the argument for purposive creation, of means foreordained to certain ends was, a century ago, practically unanswerable. And yet today you hear scarce a word of it, and the reason is that since the day of Charles Darwin the world has spoken a new language.

[9]   But let us not be too easily misled. Purposive creation is not negatived but certain accompanying misconceptions have been swept away; and the chief of these misconceptions is that of the sudden "Fiat" creation and that of the way in which purpose is manifested. Man is a dramatic animal: given a great conception like that of the creation of a world and he dressed it out in glamour and regalia. The vision of a mighty arm leaped to his eyes, the roaring of primeval chaos and the Voice sweeping across the Waters crying let there be light. One element alone of creation he could not hold in his imagination, and that was Time​—​of a creation in a minute, in the twinkling of an eye, he could think and dream and paint, but not of a creative force working silently, continuously a hundred, a thousand, a million years. And here was the first correction that came to the older ideas. There was a day when men were hanged for daring to suggest that it took longer than six days to build a mountain, guide a river, and set the stars above the seas. But today we realize the element of time in creation and read into the early chapters of Genesis a new meaning. It seems to some that the poetry and truth of the picture has been spoiled and the bases of religious faith shaken; to others it seems that we have received a conception at once vaster and truer and more sublime. Page 47»

[10]   Then again the conception of the working of purpose was changed by Charles Darwin's epoch-making work. He said the hands are surely made to grasp; strange made, beautifully adjusted, but how came it so? Not again by sudden fiat, by
 quick creation. First it was a hoof, then it became a paw, then a two or three fingered limb and finally a human hand. No sooner however, had this conception of growth come than the question followed why did it grow this way, why did it progress from the less useful to the more useful; the less facile to the delicately adjustable? The answer to this query was in epoch-making leap of the human mind: and that answer was: the animals with hands were able to survive under given conditions of life better than animals with paws; consequently the animals with hands multiplied and increased, and the increase of the animals with paws was checked and so on through nature hunted by its enemies the animals which by reason of their color and form could hide survived while those whose color was unfavorable perished, the strong of muscle survived, the weak perished, the beautiful were chosen for mating, the ugly died unmated and so on thro' [sic] the world by a strange natural selection those attributes and habits and limbs and organs were by the physical surroundings of animals and their circumstances of life chosen out and kept alive, while death carried the rest away. And this is what we mean by the survival of the fittest.

[11]   But there is, as many of you must know, one curious hitch in this otherwise brilliant demonstration. How did it happen that any animal so varied from the type as to present a new feature which proved valuable for helping him live​—​in a world of hoofed animals how did it happen that a split-hoofed animal appeared and then a five fingered man? The answer tentatively given to this was that this happened thro' [sic] inexplicable and yet evident variation from type. From the parents without apparent cause there is suddenly born offspring that does not wholly resemble either​—​it varies; perhaps slightly, perhaps considerably from the parent type. If the variation is useless it has no effect on animal life; if it is useful it gives the possessor a new means of getting on in the world​—​an advantage over its rivals; if lastly the new variation from type is a hindrance it will handicap and eventually kill its possessor or his descendants. As to the hidden forces determining this variation, science too returns no definite [explanation] but when once the variation occurs there is an application of the great law of inertia which tends to make the new thing permanent in the race and this tendency to permanence in acquired character is what is known as heredity.

[12]   The recognition of the wonderful part which heredity and variation play in animal life literally changed the world's language in the earlier half of the 19th century and especially did the phrase: "the survival of the fittest." Undoubtedly this phrase led to a hardening of human hearts.

[13]   Certain animals, certain races survive, and the reason of this survival was because they were fit to survive. The exact explanation of this fitness, however, varied from time to time. Some people meant by fitness the fact that this particular race or this particular group were the best representatives of humanity or of the animal world. Scientists, however, meant simply that this particular race or group were the strongest people or the more cunning, or in some way best adapted to overcome their enemies in the animal world or in the physical world. And moreover it became increasingly clearer that much of the ability of survival a group or an animal possessed depended upon his reason; that those races of men, for instance, with the strongest reasoning powers must of necessity over reach those with weaker minds; so that out of a tendency to regard survival in the world as merely mechanical and as inevitable, a fatalistic thing that must occur, there grew up by degrees the larger Page 48» conception that survival depended upon human ability; and it was upon this thought that, several decades ago, were based the whole argument for the public school. It was said here is a nation; if that nation expects to survive it must think; if it is going to think it must think clearly; it must have large funds of knowledge, and have at its fingers' ends the facts of this multitudinous world; consequently the children of this people must be trained, not simply some of the children but all of the children; and as they are trained through the effects of the great law of heredity, the acquired ability is going to be transmitted to their children; and thus the race and the nation is going to be bettered.

[14]   I do not doubt but that most people take it that this is the argument for the public schools today; in a sense it is; and yet there has come a subtle change in the application and in the way in which the world's keener minds conceive it; and that change in conception depends upon a change in the conception of what heredity really means and how in really works in animal life. The older and cruder doctrine of heredity said: "The child is born; it grows to youth and manhood; it learns certain things; acquires certain habits, the things which it learns and acquires, it transmits to its children, and they in turn transmit what was transmitted to them in addition to what they themselves have acquired. And so there goes on in the line of individual descent an accumulation of acquired characteristics; and it is such acquired characteristics, in addition to the original endowment which makes the civilized man." Now this conception of heredity has been very seriously questioned, and I think it fair to say today that it is practically overthrown, and the man who did the overthrowing, [August] Weismann of Germany, has shown us a newer and more subtle conception.

[15]   Weismann's conception is that no acquired characteristics of the individual after birth are ever transmitted to his descendants; that each individual is, as it were, the ripened fruit fallen from the parent tree, and once so separated from the parent he begins an independent development of his own which can not be influenced physically by the original tree, nor can any of the acquired characteristics be handed down generation after generation; that the child resembles parent from the fact that they both spring from the same great seed and not because the characteristics acquired by the father were given to the son. Now it may seem to you that this after all makes but little difference, and yet upon this distinction is based nearly all the modern doctrine of higher and lower races, of superior and inferior nations: for it is said how impossible it is to make an Anglo-Saxon out of a Zulu, since no matter how educated the individual Zulu may become his acquired education can never be transmitted to his children; Zulu in stock and birth he must continue Zulu to the world's end; he can never be raised or lowered; he is fated to be what by inexplicable creation he was made. If any of you have noted, in the last decade or so, a weakening of interest in the public school, a lessening of faith in what human training may accomplish, and a general tendency to sit back and watch the lower classes and the lower races waver and wander on, unhelped and with little sympathy from above, you may be sure that the source of this new attitude is the conception of heredity which I have already mentioned. But in the last decade this evidently incomplete picture of what human life really is has received a strange and notable reenforcement and adjustment to larger truth. Let it be granted that men do not receive from their fathers, through sheer physical heredity, that new and wonderful endowment which the world has given to growing sons of the twentieth century, and yet in nevertheless remains true that he does receive the endowment, or in other words physical heredity is by no Page 49» means the only heredity in the world nor is it in all probability the most important heredity.

[16]   The human child receives its body and the physical bases of life from its parents, but it receives its thoughts, the larger part of its habits, its tricks of doing, its religion, its whole conception of what it is and what the whole world about it is from the society in which it is placed; and this heredity which is not physical at all has been aptly called social heredity. It is easy to illustrate this; take for instance a boy; he is born and reared in the slums of New York; conceive now a boy of actually similar endowment, born on a farm in Ohio; that you are going to have two entirely different men under such circumstances is as clear as noonday. But why? It is not [at] all necessary that they should have had a different beginning in the world, that they should have sprung from a different kind of human seed; we may indeed conceive them to be own brothers; and yet in the one place the social influences of the slums of New York are going to form a street Arab, quick, keen, depraved, perhaps criminal, while the surroundings of the other boy are going to give to the world a slower, more honest, and more open nature; nor is it the mere physical surroundings that are going to make this difference; it is the spiritual surroundings, the thought, the talk, the economic organization, the different ways in which these two different worlds conceive themselves as parts of some larger world; and so vast and important are these social surroundings to any human being, either today or yesterday, that it is undoubtedly true that nine tenths of what a man is, depends on social rather than on physical heredity.

[17]   Now while people for centuries have known this and partially grasped the idea and expressed it in varying ways, yet it is not until the present decade perhaps that the idea has received that scientific formulation that enables us to comprehend it broadly, and when people do comprehend it, it is going to revolutionize modern thought and modern conceptions of education.

[18]   Now I want to go back again over the way which we have come, that is the account of the varying conceptions of creation and the development of the conceptions of heredity, and bring to your minds how these varying conceptions have influenced our ideas of the inter-relations in the world of men. In the first place when purposive creation, in its more child-like form, was dominant it tried to explain one thing that has ever faced men. and that is the difference in the human condition; the difference between high and low, good and bad, prosperous and unfortunate; and first it explained them simply and crudely, that men were divided into the elect and the damned; that the elect were happy and the damned unhappy, and when it became evident that this did not explain all the intricacies of human inequality there was added to this the larger idea of a second story to the world where the happiness of the elect would be more assured and the punishment of the damned more certain. When, however, even before the days of Charles Darwin, men had begun to notice how dependent we are upon physical environment and how the circumstances of life changed life, there was a tendency toward at more fatalistic conception of life, and more emphasis placed upon climate and circumstances as determining whether men should be happy or unhappy, whether races should survive or perish.

[19]   Then when the tendency was to put the stress on human capabilities and acquirements as the bases of race accomplishment men were disposed to measure brain capacity and look for the exceptional individual. If a single Negro could read Greek it showed that some Negroes were among the gifted and that the lines of Page 50» superiority were not entirely racial. But when we come down further to the idea that individual accomplishment was spasmodic and that only those great lines of descent of certain families and natures furnish the seed of surviving peoples, then again our way of thinking was changed. The world thought less of the exceptional man and began to look at the average man as typical of his race. Finally, with the knowledge that thought and words, and right and deed influence men even more than their original physical endowment there has arisen the whole movement of social reform to inspire and arouse men, and to furnish by social heredity that which they otherwise lack.

[20]   I know at all this seems dry and far-fetched and much of it is trite and yet we can not get to sure a grasp of it. Humanity was created with a purpose, but that purpose slowly fulfilled itself and was made effective by the way which surrounding circumstances of life helped or hindered individuals with certain characteristics. Favorable and unfavorable characteristics were handed down by heredity, but those individuals with the unfavorable traits died, the others survived; the acquirement of favorable characteristics may come in two ways: by physical descent, by social influence. Those acquired by physical descent are fixed by laws beyond our knowledge and control, but the vastly larger and more important number are acquired by the individual after he is grown by the thoughts, soul, and deeds which influence and mold his life.

[21]   And this resume brings me to the center of my theme. The public school of today is the largest and most efficient single organ for transmitting the social heritage of men. This was not the original conception of the school. It was for years conceived simply as a place where men were to be given religious precepts for guidance in a world of clearly manifest purpose. Then it was conceived of as a place of apprenticeship for boys and girls to learn the technique of fighting a physical world of heat and cold, of rocks and hills, of air and water. Then we thought that schools were to develop exceptional men​—​those endowed by nature with genius, and finally we came to a day when we know that the public school is a force for giving to men that knowledge and power which will enable them to live under modern conditions of life.

[22]   How does all this apply to the American Negro? In many ways. In the earlier days of the world's history there was nowhere a hint that in the creation of the world the Lord graded ability or desert according to color. This was natural because civilization began in the torrid zone among the darker races; when however it moved to the lighter races of the temperate zone, here and there the idea arose of a certain misfortune in the darker races because of the climate of the lands and their physical conformation. The Darwinian theory added to this the idea that the white races were about to inherit the earth because of a certain innate superiority and the Weismannic theory clinched this by denying that even the appearance of exceptional Negroes could disprove the general rule.

[23]   What now are the facts in the case and the fair deductions? First, as to sheer physical heredity: are the black races degenerate or undeveloped specimens of humanity? The answer to this is clear and unequivocal and has never for a moment been disputed by any scientific evidence; the Negro races are from every physical standpoint full and normally developed men; their stature and muscular development, their keenness of sense and their physical measurement show absolutely no variation from the European type sufficient to base any theory of essentially human difference upon. There were some brain measurements taken once which have been Page 51» often quoted to the Negro's disadvantage, but the experiment was ridiculous as a crucial test from the small number of cases, and the prejudgment of the issue. It is interesting to know that one of the latest methods of measuring physical race differences came to the interesting results of placing English men and African Bantus in the semi-tall long headed type. The Negroes have their degenerate types in the dwarfs and Hottentots​—​so have the Europeans; they have their mixed types of all degrees and kinds of mixture​—​so have the Europeans. But it is an unproved and to all appearance an unprovable thesis that the physical development of men shows any color line below which is black pelt and above the white.

[24]   Nevertheless it is true that if here in the city of Washington we gather haphazard a hundred white children and a hundred black children of the same age, the white would be further advanced, somewhat brighter in intellect and quicker in adaptability. This is not simply true in Washington, in Atlanta, in Chicago, but practically throughout the United States. People who discover this fact usually greet it either with a gasp of astonishment or a word of apology, and many a thoughtless person has without argument or inquiry taken this as self-evident proof of race inferiority. Now they say: here is the same curriculum, teachers tested by the same requirements, children starting at the same age and manifesting in the earlier years the same native ability, and yet as the course progresses fewer Negro children pass, and the quality of work as the student progresses often falls more or less below the average white child.

[25]   What does this prove? Let us look at the facts narrowly. Here are two boys being trained for life; six hours a day they are in school: three hours they are in the street; fifteen hours they are at home. The schools they are in are similar​—​the teachers are of the same sort; but one walks and plays in alleys, with sordid companions, amid poverty and perhaps crime; the other lives on clean streets, with the pavements, quiet and well-dressed, and well-behaved people; the home of one is dark, cheerless and empty; the home of the other is large, cheerful, filled with books and pictures, music and instruction; the parents of the one are ignorant, driven by the shadow of poverty, harassed by doubt and dream, worn with querulousness, fretting and scolding; the other has bands to lead him, hearts to soothe him, heads to guide him and correct him. Would you expect these two boys after ten years of this training to be equal in endowment and accomplishment? Would the difference be due to the shadowy unknown physical heredity of these children or to the perfectly tangible and well-known spiritual training​—​the social heritage of these two sons of men? You may well say that there is not much difference between all white and black boys in Washington. It is perfectly true that hundreds of black children in the city have far better homes than hundreds of whites; but it is also true, and the history of the past tells us why it is true, that there are thousands of white children whose homes are better than the corresponding thousands of black so that the average in this city and throughout the United States is such that black children must of necessity receive a training in street and church and home so poor that it cannot be wholly offset by the better training of the school, and the total training of any child depends vastly more upon his home life, his contact with people, his knowledge of the world's daily thoughts, than it does upon the teachings of the schools, nor is this strange; the teacher has twenty, thirty, or fifty pupils for the fourth of a day; the home has one, three or five for three-fourths of the day. Ought not then the home training to be even times as influential as the school training? And can any technical change in school curriculum or teaching force make up for deficiencies that lie far beyond the school-room walls? Page 52»

[26]   Now this, of course, is no new thought, and yet it is seldom clearly expressed. We are so fond of explaining differences of men by the enigmatical word "heredity" that we forget how far those differences depend upon homely, every day life, and we are so eager to seize any excuse for shirking our great responsibility toward the weak and lowly an unfortunate that we hasten on the slightest pretext to attribute to the act of God or to unknown forces of nature obviously and perfectly intelligible results of the deeds of men. I repeat, then, that the schools can and ought to do but little part in the training of the children. The larger part of the training of human beings must come from the social surroundings in which they live, and when they are found deficient, when the results of their training are not what we wish, we must seek not simply to improve the schools but just as strenuously to improve the social surroundings, the social opportunities, and the social heritage of the unfortunate and untrained. There is today without doubt a tendency among the American people to be particularly blind as to this fact. Whenever, by chance, Negroes are seen not to be doing quite as well as their neighbors who are having better chances to do well, then instead of taking every precaution to help the Negroes to do better, the distinct tendency is to cut off some of the privileges they already have. If for instance, the Negro public schools have for obvious reasons a smaller percentage of success than the white public schools, the proposal is made to lower the standards of those schools; that is class education, the beginning of a caste system is proposed instead of sticking by the standards and stimulating the other organs of social education so the public schools may have better material to work upon. This tendency must be resisted to the last ditch. There is a system of caste in the United States, but it must extend no further than it has already gone. The proposals to train black boys and girls to be something less than men and women, something less than free-born American citizens is a tendency born of the devil and to be resisted by every possible measure. In native endowment, the black children of this land are not a whit behind the white children. In every privilege of education they have far less opportunity, save in the North, and in some cities like Washington. Even where they have equal chances of education the social heritage into which they are trained is poorer, lower, and more depressing. If then we are to increase the efficiency of public schools in such places we must increase the work of social reform, open the gates of opportunity, and inspire instead of discourage these millions of growing youth. And after all, my fellows, inspiration is what the Negro needs, the uplifting presence of morning on the hills of God, the whistle of birds in the treetops of the dawn, the flare of the flaming sword in the hands of that dread angel who keeps the way of life.

[{End of Du Bois's text.}]