I spent two weeks in August not far from Great Barrington, Massachusetts — a sleepy Berkshire town that was close to my summer home when I lived in New York City. Known for its proximity to Tanglewood and other delights of the Berkshires, it was also the birthplace of William Edward Burghardt, or W.E.B. Du Bois.
Born on Feb. 23, 1868 — as it happens, exactly one month before the establishment of the University of California — Du Bois grew up in one of only a few black families in Great Barrington, and he graduated from his high school there in 1884 as valedictorian. He went on to college, earning his first bachelor’s degree at Fisk University before entering Harvard College, where he not only did additional undergraduate study but also later returned to earn his master’s and doctorate in history. Du Bois rose to prominence both as a scholar and as an activist in the fight against discriminatory Jim Crow laws and other practices that targeted Southern blacks in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A co-founder of the NAACP, he championed the role of higher education for African Americans in post-slavery America.
One of the United States’ most original and influential public intellectuals, Du Bois wrote a book that should be on every UC Berkeley student’s reading list: “The Souls of Black Folk.” I had taught the book in several classes over the years but went back to reread the work in August as I was writing my convocation address (where I quoted one of his most powerful passages). I was struck, as always, by the power of his language and his vision, but this time, I also realized more keenly than ever before the contemporary relevance of his perspectives on higher education.
Key to lifting African Americans out of economic and social poverty, Du Bois felt, was a college education aimed at engendering within students a thirst for knowledge as well as a questioning mind. Education should not teach students to conform to one job or function — a notion he considered akin to slavery — but should give them a broad base of understanding upon which they can build as they make personal choices about their life and work. Education should also teach students to be critical thinkers and impassioned citizens of the city of letters and intellect.
Du Bois’ rise coincided with that of another black public intellectual and civil rights leader, Booker T. Washington, and the debates between the two men on the topic of education were fierce. Washington believed that progress for blacks lay in using colleges to teach trades, thus enabling them to shore up a financial base and improve economic standing.
“The very best service which any one can render to what is called the higher education,” Washington said, “is to teach the present generation to provide a material or industrial foundation.”
In 1903, Washington boasted that at his Tuskegee Institute, students were taught “thirty-three trades and industries” — from carpentry to blacksmithing, sewing to basketry — and not history, philosophy or literature.
Du Bois, in a 1906 address at the Hampton Institute, lamented that such an “insistence on the practical … would make Socrates an idiot and Jesus Christ a crank.”
The Washington-Du Bois debates about the purpose of college have never been resolved, and though circumstances have, of course, changed, we see a similar back-and-forth play out on the pages of newspapers, in the meeting rooms of elected officials and at dinner tables around the country. Certainly, especially in a troubled economy and for many college students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, a school such as UC Berkeley must provide an education that translates classroom learning into useful knowledge so that students can support themselves when they graduate. But we must not forget why Du Bois wrote so movingly about how he relished the opportunity to summon “Aristotle and Aurelius”; why it was so important that when he sat with Shakespeare, “he wince(d) not”; why, in other words, a liberal arts education was the key to both enlightenment and liberation.
In a larger sense, Du Bois’ views on education were tied to the idea of creating a nation built around leaders who came from every background, race and ethnicity — how a progressive society requires full participation in the world of ideas as well as in a world of skills. While Washington accepted, at least for a time, that in the 19th and early 20th centuries, black Americans would have to remain second-class citizens, Du Bois could not. He insisted on “the right of a human being to be a man even if he does not wear the same cut of vest, the same curl of hair, or the same color of skin.” A social ill could not be cured only by an economic solution such as practical education — those with power would still make tools out of those without it — but liberal learning might help groups in a society question their own treatment as well as their treatment of others. This, it follows, could lead to a fair community, even one in which any constituent member is vastly different from any other.
Certainly, in a society still rife with inequality and exclusion 150 years after Du Bois was born in Great Barrington, and at a time when many debates about access tend to favor vocational training rather than the kind of quality education we offer at UC Berkeley, it is an ideal well worth remembering.