Washington and Canada: Free Market Idealism in the Context of Social Defeat

By Jones, Brian | The Journal of Negro Education, Winter 2018 | Go to article overview

Washington and Canada: Free Market Idealism in the Context of Social Defeat


Jones, Brian, The Journal of Negro Education


Introduction

Booker T. Washington and Geoffrey Canada are two of the most well-known African American educators. Both educators became famous for stepping outside of their respective schoolhouse doors and making political and educational statements to the public. Each man used his notoriety to advance a particular educational model. Washington advocated for "industrial education." Canada has advocated for charter schools and privatization. In both cases, these models were given enormous support from wealthy and powerful supporters and in both cases came to dominate public discussions of education for Black people. Through an examination of the careers of these two men, we learn much about the larger trends and forces shaping Black education, then and now.

This investigation grew out of my experience over eight years (2003 to 2011) as an elementary school teacher in Harlem's public schools. I was struck by Geoffrey Canada's rapid rise to fame and the remarkable promises he made about his charter schools. When he and I clashed on a panel at NBC's first Education Nation conference in 2010, I began thinking about historical parallels to his project (Jones, 2010). Reading through his media coverage, interviews and public statements systematically, I noticed a profound symmetry between Canada's career and that of Booker T. Washington. This correlation matters because it challenges us to think more clearly and critically about widely lauded plans for the education of Black youth, in the present as well as in the past.

The defeat of Radical Reconstruction and of the Black Power movements were, respectively, the essential contexts for the ascent of these two figures-Washington and Canada. Although their rise to positions of prominence, wealth, and influence are separated by a century, their ideas and pedagogy bear a striking similarity. Both figures promoted free market-oriented ideas and strategies for uplift and education in a period of political and social defeat. This author argues that the term that historian Michael R. West uses to describe Washington's intellectual legacy-"idealism"-also applies to Canada (West, 2006). Their proposals are both idealistic in that they represent, an evasion of genuine material problems, offering instead a change of mindset as a solution. West argued that Washington was the first to elucidate the concept of "race relations" as a new framing of the problem of racism and inequality. In place of actually confronting the issue of democracy and political equality, Washington proposed that the issue was one of "relations" or how people felt about each other. Similarly, Canada puts aside proposals for redistributing capital or ending mass incarceration in favor of bestowing "social capital" on young Black people. Both men essentially eschew social change strategies in favor of changing individuals, specifically, Black individuals.

As West pointed out, the terms usually applied to Washington, "accommodationist" or "conservative," do not really fit. Washington sought social change, not mere preservation of the status quo (West, 2006). West called him a "radical idealist" because Washington's proposals would have required a radical re-definition of citizenship, essentially erasing the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed African American men the right to vote. Canada is certainly not as "radical" as Washington, in that sense. Rather, both men are united by their idealism and by their commitment to free market models of social change. For both men, that meant working to thwart labor unions and collective bargaining, de-emphasizing civil rights and social obligations in their public rhetoric, and instead emphasizing individual "chances" in life's marketplace. For these reasons, both men are most accurately described as free market idealists.

Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington, one of the most well-known Black educators in the United States, was born a slave in Virginia in 1856. …

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