William Edgar Burghardt Du Bois Essay

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William Edward Burghardt Du Bois wrote extensively on the subject of education but has been recognized only recently as a significant contributor to the field of educational thought. Well ahead of other figures in the fields of sociology and education, Du Bois understood that education was a two-edged sword that could be used to either liberate or subjugate specific social and cultural groups. For example, in his 1903 essay, “The Training of Negroes for Social Power,” Du Bois wrote that many of the people who were involved in educating Blacks were interested in making them a subject caste “to be led, but not to lead themselves.”

Du Bois was an elitist who believed that only a selected few, and “not the majority of men,” were capable of “higher training.” He felt this was true for both Blacks and Whites—an idea he outlined in detail for Blacks in Chapter Two (“The Talented Tenth”) of the 1903 book The Negro Problem. In this essay, republished the same year in his own book, The Souls of Black Folks, Du Bois called for the most talented tenth of the Black population to be educated to the largest degree possible so that they could assume leadership of their less-talented brothers and sisters. In doing so, Du Bois was echoing an idea put forward in antiquity by Plato and following the American Revolution by Thomas Jefferson.

For Du Bois, education was not simply limited to schooling. Instead, he felt it also included the training found in one’s home and daily life and in one’s social class. Education was essential to Du Bois because he believed it to be the principal means available for Black empowerment. Along with the ballot, he felt that education would defend the Negro from a “second slavery.”

Du Bois advocated the concept of a meritocracy. Although his views were clearly elitist, they were not undemocratic and provided an important counterpoint to the “Hampton model” of education advocated by Samuel Chapman Armstrong and his protégé, Booker T. Washington. Under the Hampton model, Blacks were taught trade-related skills, which would give them a place in the emerging industrial economy. They were not seen as being sufficiently developed as a people, however, to assume higher levels of education that would have directed them toward positions as lawyers, businessmen, doctors, university professors, and political leaders.

In fact, as pointed out by the historian James Anderson, during its first twenty years, approximately 84 percent of Hampton’s 723 graduates became teachers. Hampton did not offer a trade certificate until 1895. In 1900, only 45 of its 656 students were enrolled in the trade school program, and only 4 students were listed as majoring in agriculture. In reality, Hampton took students who had completed an elementary school program and gave them two years of coursework that provided them with the training to become elementary school teachers.

While training in manual and shop skills was provided to both male and female students at Hampton (initially under the leadership of Armstrong), and later at Tuskegee (founded by Washington), as part of its “industrial” model, its actual purpose was not, according to Anderson, to develop skilled workers in these areas, but instead to inculcate into these future teachers the importance of hard work and the “dignity of labor.” In his 1903 The Souls of Black Folks, Du Bois published his essay “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others.” Specifically, Du Bois argued that as a result of the Hampton model, and its implementation by Washington, three things had occurred: the disfranchisement of the Negro, the legal creation of a distinct status of civil inferiority for the Negro, and the steady withdrawal of aid from institutions for the higher training of the Negro.

Du Bois felt that Washington’s actions were essentially contradictory. In the case of education, he argued that while Washington advocated common school and industrial training for Blacks, he discouraged the development of Black higher education. Those opposing Washington and his policies, according to Du Bois, asked for three things: the right to vote, civic equality, and the education of youth according to ability. Du Bois’s criticism of Washington in The Souls of Black Folks represented the greatest challenge the “Tuskegee Machine” had faced. By the beginning of World War I, as a result of Du Bois’s efforts and those of other Black leaders, Washington’s model had been overturned.

Du Bois, as a key member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and, more specifically, in his editorship of The Crisis magazine (1910–1934), wrote regularly about elementary and secondary education, as well as higher education. He argued, for example, that segregating Black and White children from one another in school was to virtually guarantee “their separation through life.” At the same time, Du Bois was enough of a pragmatist to realize that racial prejudice was so strong in many parts of the country that the integration of the schools from a practical point of view was impossible.

In his article “The Tragedy of Jim Crow,” which appeared in the July 1923 issue of The Crisis, Du Bois stated that segregation in the schools was “the greatest possible menace to democracy.” At the same time, he believed that even with their lack of resources, Black schools were an infinitely better place for Black children to be in than in White-dominated and -controlled institutions. In the end, although favoring the idea of desegregation in education, Du Bois supported such programs only if they were founded on the basis of true equality for the races.

Du Bois experimented with writing Black-oriented textbooks during the 1930s and continued to comment on educational ideas throughout his life. Although not specifically a philosopher of education, he developed a significant body of educational writings that is increasingly becoming appreciated and valued in the social and cultural foundations of education.


  1. Alridge, D. P. (1999). Conceptualizing a Du Boisian philosophy of education: Toward a model for African American education. Educational Theory, 49(3), 359–380.
  2. Anderson, J. D. (1988). The education of Blacks in the South, 1860–1935. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
  3. Aptheker, H. (Ed.). (1973). The education of Black people: Ten critiques, 1906–1960. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
  4. Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903a). The souls of Black folks. Chicago: A. C. McClurg.
  5. Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903b). The talented tenth. In The Negro Problem: A Series of Articles by Representative American Negroes of Today (pp. 33–75). New York: James Pott.
  6. Du Bois, W. E. B. (1923, August). The tragedy of Jim Crow. The Crisis, 26, 169–172.
  7. Franklin, V. P. (1976). W. E. B. Du Bois and the education of Black folk. History of Education Quarterly, 16(1), 11–118.
  8. Provenzo, E. F., Jr. (2002). Du Bois on education. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira.

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