W.E.B. Du Bois and the Socio-Political Structures of Education

By Williams, Robert W. | Negro Educational Review, January 2004 | Go to article overview
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W.E.B. Du Bois and the Socio-Political Structures of Education

Williams, Robert W., Negro Educational Review

ABSTRACT: 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. This article will present Du Bois's insights into the socio-political contexts of education, as well as into the content of instruction. In addition, I will sketch several possible guidelines, extracted from his thoughts, that might be useful for a new millennium of education in America.


Parental involvement, or more broadly framed family involvement, in our children's education is currently an important and much discussed topic. 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 also data to indicate 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, is embedded. It has become almost a cliché 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.

We should also address particular contextual dimensions that condition our lives and family situations: namely, race, class, and 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.

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