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African-American Education

December 1995

The educational system in this country is designed to equip individuals for successful participation in a democracy--or so the theory goes. It has also been thought of by some as an instrument of social control: a means of imposing normative values and of classifying individuals according to dominant ideals. Not surprisingly, the educational establishment has been accused by certain critics of "educating" black students in this latter sense. Discussion of and debate over how best to educate and empower blacks has been vigorous; activists and educators from before the Civil War to the present day have taken up the issue. The pages of The Atlantic have served as a forum for discussion and elucidation of these issues since the magazine's inception.

In "The Awakening of the Negro" (September, 1896, Atlantic) Booker T. Washington argued that black education's first priority should be to counteract the debilitating effects of slavery which, by utterly subjecting blacks to the whims of white masters, had disburdened blacks of responsibility for themselves. He advocated a program like the one used at The Tuskegee Institute (which he himself founded) that incorporated manual labor and life management-skills into its design. If students learned useful trades while in school, he suggested, they would feel confident that they had something to offer and could therefore lay claim to a position in the social structure. "Friction between the races will pass away in proportion as the black man...can produce something that the white man wants or respects in the commercial world."

In "The Training of Black Men" (September, 1902, Atlantic) W.E.B. Du Bois argued that training blacks for economic usefulness is not enough. Earmarking them for manual labor without the benefit of education, culture, and ideas belittled them and suggested to them and to the rest of the world that they were less than fully human. Harmonization of race relations, he argued, could only occur between two self-respecting, cultured, educated races--not between a dominant elite and a forcibly subordinated, resentful minority. In "A Negro Schoolmaster in the New South" (January, 1899, Atlantic) Du Bois recounted some of his own experiences as a rural schoolteacher in Tennessee, and expressed frustration at the barriers that confronted some of his more ambitious students.
Also see our Black History Month collection which includes articles by Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, and Ralph McGill. In "Higher Education for the Negro" (November, 1965, Atlantic) Bernard W. Harleston assessed the state of higher education for blacks. Educational opportunities, he argued, were still severely limited. Blacks generally lacked access to prominent white institutions and many all-black institutions were underfunded and mediocre. He expressed optimism, however, about fledgling affirmative-action efforts, intercollegiate partnerships and exchange programs, and programs designed to bolster younger students' interest in academics. He urged that such programs be expanded and further developed.

In Race and the Schooling of Black Americans (April, 1992, Atlantic) social psychologist Claude M. Steele suggested that the predominant reason for the failure of so many American blacks to achieve to their potential in school is an ongoing stigmatization in the classroom. The subtle and pervasive messages with which black students are bombarded--that they are intellectually inferior; that there is no place for them in the ranks of the educated and successful--often causes them to refocus their energies outside of school. While the recognition of such a pernicious and, for many, crippling problem can hardly be considered good news, Steele confessed, he argued that its identification as the root of poor school performance does "lead us to a heartening principle: if blacks are made less racially vulnerable in school, they can overcome even substantial obstacles."

Finally, in "Black Nationalism on Campus" (January, 1993, Atlantic) Nicholas Lemann reported on his discussions with students at Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania who considered themselves participants in the Black Nationalist movement. He found that for many students Black Nationalism was not a militant uprising against the white establishment but rather a means of maintaining ethnic identity and self-respect as their education propelled them into the mainstream world of the predominantly white middle class.

—Sage Stossel

  • For further reading, see Flashback: Black History, American History.

  • See the Flashbacks archive

    Sage Stossel is an editor of The Atlantic Online. She draws the weekly cartoon feature, "Sage, Ink."

    Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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