How the Ghost of Booker T. Washington Haunts Today’s Testing Advocates


By Mark Naison

When I read the statement from 19 Civil Rights organizations supporting universal testing in the nation’s public schools, I couldn’t help but recall a time in American History when an African American educator named Booker T Washington stepped forward with a plan to have character training and instruction in skilled trades supplant liberal arts education in schools serving African Americans, and in so doing managed to neutralize opposition to Black Education in the South, while attracting the support of education philanthropists in the North.

Washington put forward his plan at a time, eerily akin to ours, when the rights of African Americans and working class Americans were under assault. In the South, white supremacists were moving forward with plans to put a final end to the voting rights of African Americans which had been secured during Reconstruction, while passing laws requiring segregation of Blacks and whites in both public and private institutions. In the North, powerful industrialists were banding together to crush an emerging industrial labor movement, imposing devastating defeats on organizing efforts among steel workers in the Homestead Strike of 1892 and to efforts to build a national railroad union in the Pullman Strike of 1894.

Washington, one of the most astute political thinkers of his age, saw which way the wind was blowing and decided that to create any space for Black education, he had to make an accommodation with both Southern segregationists and Northern industrialists. As a result, he put forward his plans to remake Black education as a narrow skill and character enterprise, while proclaiming his opposition to civil rights agitation, labor organizing and efforts by Blacks to seek political power.

Washington’s program, by most standards, was an astonishing success. Not only were schools on his model allowed to survive in the south at time of fierce anti-black violence, and the imposition of the Jim Crow regime, he became the most powerful Black man in America, single handedly controlling the flow of philanthropic dollars to Black educational institutions and Republican party patronage in the black community.

However, many Black intellectuals, led by the brilliant Fisk and Harvard trained social scientist, W.E.B.DuBois, felt that Washington had conceded too much. Not only did DuBois criticize Washington for arguing that Blacks could defer their quest for full citizenship rights, saying that such a position would actually invite white attacks, he bitterly attacked Washington for selling Black youth short by saying they didn’t need poetry, didn’t need literature, didn’t need history, didn’t need exposure the full range of subjects that in most advanced societies were seen as the essential background of those seeking political or cultural leadership.

And when I think about current Civil Rights leaders demanding a narrowly test based curriculum for young people growing up in poverty, and young people of color, a curriculm that leaves little room for creative thinking, the arts, and the exploration of cultural traditions of the communities they come from, I think of what DuBois wrote in the Souls of Black Folk more than 100 years ago. Namely that every child, no matter how poor, now matter how isolated, no matter how stigmatized the group they come from, should have the opportunity to become a poet, a writer, a scientist, a great political leader or orator, and should not be assumed to be consigned to a future as a low wage worker maintaining a respectful silence while others lead.

And because of that, I think we need to have a proliferation of voices, modeled on that of Dr Dubois, who insist that ALL our children be given an education which allows them to dream, to create, to challenge received authority, and to make history,

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