Academic journal article Journal of Thought

"Much Learning Makes Men Mad": Classical Education and Black Empowerment in Martin R. Delany's Philosophy of Education

Academic journal article Journal of Thought

"Much Learning Makes Men Mad": Classical Education and Black Empowerment in Martin R. Delany's Philosophy of Education

Article excerpt

1. Introduction:

Education, or more appropriately, the denial of access to education, was the bedrock of enslavement and segregation in America. Keeping Blacks (slave and free) ignorant and uneducated provided slaveholders justification for enslavement, subordination, and the denial to them of rights, privileges and opportunities afforded Whites. It was no coincidence, therefore, that, early in their struggles, Blacks realized the critical importance of education, and it assumed preeminence in their liberation thoughts and strategies. Thus, gaining knowledge became, for leading Blacks, a countervailing repertoire of resistance; the antidote for overcoming subordination and impoverishment; and ultimately achieving true freedom and equality. The pursuit of knowledge became the lifeline to freedom and equality; an existential goal.

The linkage of education to freedom and equality prompted many to engage seemingly insurmountable obstacles in the quest for knowledge. In his epic autobiography, F redrick Douglass captured a poignant moment of existential epiphany: the sudden revelation of the dialectics of education and freedom. Douglass was a slave who escaped, and subsequently published, among many other works, a Narrative (1842) of his life. He recalled, with dramatic effects, the moment his master Thomas Auld berated his wife for teaching Douglass the alphabet. Within earshot of Douglass, Auld pleaded with his wife to terminate the lesson on the ground that it was both "unlawful and unsafe" to teach slaves to read (Blight, 2003, p. 63).

Auld informed his wife that, learning would spoil the best nigger in the world.. .if you teach that nigger how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master...It would make him discontent and unhappy. (Ibid)

According to Douglass, Auld's words

sank deep into my heart, stirred sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entire new train of thoughts.. now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty--to wit, the White man's power to enslave the Black man. It was a great achievement, and I prized it highly. (Ibid, p. 64)

Douglass would not soon forget this moment. He now, "understood the pathway from slavery to freedom" (Ibid). Though Mrs. Auld, in deference to her husband, terminated the lessons and became mean-spirited, once ignited, Douglass' desire for knowledge would not be extinguished. He would go on to self-educate, and Thomas Auld's words proved prophetic. The attainment of literacy fired Douglass's desire for freedom. Subsequently, he escaped. Such revelation, however, was not a uniquely Douglassean experience. It was an experience shared by many of Douglass's contemporaries.

Thus, the quest for education became a burning desire among Blacks, free and slave, and it would dominate the debate within the leadership of the evolving free Black community in the early nineteenth century. The question "Why Education?" became a recurrent theme in Black liberation thought. Along with the "Why?" there was also the "Which?" Which form of education would best guarantee the desired freedom and meaningful equality? On this question, the free Black leadership was divided into two opposing viewpoints: those in favor of classical education, also referred to as collegiate or education of the mind; against advocates of industrial education, also referred to as practical, normal or education of the hand. Prominent disputants included William E. B. Du Bois, who was identified with the classical education camp. A Harvard trained historian, Du Bois was an activist, first through the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), of which he was a founding member, and later in the Pan-African movement. Booker T. Washington towered above everyone in opposition to Du Bois on the subject of education. …

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