Du Bois: The Primacy of Ideals
By Gabriel Blanchard
No real progress towards justice can be made unless eternal truths are clearly maintained.
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois stands at the head of all subsequent discussions of civil rights. He lived and worked in a tempestous period of American history: Jim Crow laws, imposing segregation and political disfranchisement based on race throughout the South, were accompanied by frequent outbursts of mass violence and lynchings. There was substantial controversy—notably between Du Bois himself and Booker T. Washington—over the extent to which urbanity and compromise should govern efforts at political equality. The debate between idealism and pragmatism is of course perennial, no matter what the goal is, and most of us realize that some combination of the two is called for. But Du Bois was an educator as well as an activist, and he was able to articulate what sort of pragmatism could be considered, and what could not, with great clarity.
This clarity was rooted in his grasp of the inalienable dignity of the human person. Du Bois recognized that, however gentle and conciliatory this or that strategy might validly be, no strategy could be countenanced if it obscured that dignity. In The Souls of Black Folk (published in 1903), he wrote: “The growing spirit of kindliness and reconciliation between the North and South after the frightful difference of a generation ago ought to be a source of deep congratulation to all, and especially to those whose mistreatment caused the war; but if that reconciliation is to be marked by the industrial slavery and civic death of those same black men, with permanent legislation into a position of inferiority, then those black men, if they really are men, are called upon by every consideration of patriotism and loyalty to oppose such a course by all civilized methods … We have no right to sit silently by while the inevitable seeds are sown for a harvest of disaster to our children, black and white.”
This insistence on the inviolability of ideals is characteristic, too, of his remarks upon education. He considered its primary object to be the cultivation of humanity—of our innate capacities of intellect and imagination—rather than mere preparation to enter the workplace (that preparation being more properly the workplace’s own task). The right “response,” so to speak, to any human being is to help them develop as a human, not an animal with no needs but food and shelter, still less as a mere cog in a machine.
It may be only a coincidence that W. E. B. Du Bois addresses two subjects, the social position of African-Americans and the philosophy of education, that are again stormily controversial today, but (to steal Chesterton’s phrase) it is a coincidence that really does coincide. His writing is thus very timely; classic texts usually are, which is part of the philosophy that underlies the CLT author bank.
We could hardly hope to agree with everything in Du Bois’ work: his desire to excise religious content from education, for example, would be objectionable on the mere grounds that religion is a major element of human society and history, if on no others. But his contribution to what Adler styled “the Great Conversation” is manifest, and its simultaneous window into his own historical moment remains pertinent as context for our own day.