Booker Taliaferro Washington on Education


Booker T. Washington stands out in American History as a school book black hero. Some have even gone as far as to label Booker T. Washington a token Negro in the company of white heroes. This is because of his acceptance of segregation, his outward humility, and his opposition to black militancy, even more than because of his constructive achievements as an educator and race leader. His critics argue that his methods were too compromising and unheroic to be placed in the forefront as the spokesperson for black progress. Washington was best known as the Negro spokesperson who, in the Atlanta Compromise Address in 1895, accepted the Southern white demand for racial segregation. He was also the hero of this own success story, Up From Slavery. This autobiography described how he came up from poverty through self-help and the help of benevolent whites to be the foremost black educator and the successor of Frederick Douglass as a black leader and spokesman. Regardless of the position one chooses to take on Washington, he meant many things to many people, and his ideas were critical to helping blacks establish a foundation for progress here in the United States.

Washington's views on education were representative of the fact that he was not an intellectual, but a man of action. Washington wanted blacks in the south to respect and value the need for industrial education both from a vantage of American and African experience. He was against the notion of education as a tool used merely to enable one to speak and write the English language correctly; he wanted school to be a place where one might learn to make life more endurable, and if possible, attractive - he wanted an education that would relieve him of the hard times at home, immediately. Washington, early in his life noticed that those who were considered educated were not that far removed from the conditions in which he was residing. Therefore, he disagreed with the post-emancipation ideologies of blacks who believed that freedom from slavery brought freedom from hard work. Moreover, education of the head would bring even more sweeping emancipation from work with the hands. He did not want his black people to be ashamed of using their hands, but to have respect for creating something and a sense of satisfaction upon completion of that task.

Booker T. Washington's Autobiography

"While I have never wished to underestimate the awakening power of purely mental training, I believe that this visible, tangible contact with nature gave me inspirations and ambitions which could not have come in any other way. I favor the most thorough mental training and the highest development of mind, but I want to see these linked with the common things of the universal life about our doors." -BTW (Working With the Hands)

Booker T. Washington remembers his childhood reflections and realizations of the great feeling of accomplishment as the reason he chose to attend Hampton Institute, despite all the difficulties he experienced on the way. At Hampton, Washington learned that pupils could have both their minds educated and their hands trained. When Washington entered Hampton, few industries were taught there, but they covered many of the fundamentals of everyday life, which may seem rudimentary, but Washington noted that it had great educational value.

"I soon learned that there was a great difference between studying about things and studying the things themselves, between book instruction and the illumination of practical experience." -BTW (Working With the Hands)


Class in mechanical drawing

Booker T. Washington used his early life experiences as preparation for the work of training the head, the heart, and the hands which he was to undertake later at the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama. Washington would later become known as the "Wizard of Tuskegee," an authoritarian who could brook no opposition in the black world, and who used his power to build an empire of industrial training schools at the expense of academic education.

Washington emphasized the importance of the industrial curriculum in his development of Tuskegee's curriculum. A course study that Washington saw fit, was a course study that trained Southern blacks to become farmers, carpenters, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, brick masons, engineers, cooks, laundresses, sewing women, house keepers, and later tailors - as Washington noticed "that it was almost impossible to find in the whole country an educated colored man who could teach the making of clothing." As support for the Tuskegee Institute increased, over the years, so did the enrollment and selection of trade skill classes offered. The students received "hands-on" instruction in the trade of their choice, and more than half of the students were actually employed and receiving pay in their trade, while learning at the same time.

"When I went to Alabama to begin this work, I spent some time in visiting towns and country districts in order to learn the real conditions and needs of the people. It was my ambition to make the little school which I was about to found a ready service in enriching the life of the most lowly and unfortunate. With this in view, I not only visited the schools, churches, farms of the people, but slept in their one-roomed cabins and ate at their tables their fare of cornbread and fried pork." -BTW (Working With the Hands)

Teach the Child something about real country life

Washington believed that if one gave to the community in which they reside, then the community would give back to them tenfold. Since Washington knew the South and was aware that the South's primary base was in agriculture, he believed that the blacks in the south should make themselves indispensable to the land. To do this, they needed to be trained, and his focus was to make the training they needed available, at an affordable cost. His ideas were genius and ran rampant throughout the south. For many blacks the results were tangible, and this education proved not to be a waste.


See Washington's Philosophy in action, in South Carolina: The Jeanes Teachers

Read Booker T. Washington's Autobiography...

Read Booker T. Washington's Speech "Industrial Education for the Negro"


Let's compare with DuBois' Philosophy of Education

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