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Winter 2009

In the Classroom

Higher Education's Roots

in_classroom_illustration.jpgThe room looks like a field of bumper cars, clustered into eight hodgepodge groupings. Professor Julie Reuben isn't going to lecture today. Instead, she wants the 40 students to meet in small groups to discuss the memo they were assigned to write about that week's set of readings, which includes two famous papers written in 1903: "The Talented Tenth" by W.E.B. DuBois and "Industrial Education for the Negro" by Booker T. Washington.

The class is The History of American Higher Education, and the goal is for students to study the development of higher education in America as a way to understand the origins of contemporary problems and practices. The buzz in the room begins. In one small group of five, the students start by comparing the strategies for black social and economic progress that Dubois and Washington pushed for in their papers.

"Until these readings, I always felt that there was a huge difference between DuBois and Washington," says one student. "But no, they seem to be guided by the same concerns."

Another student agrees. "I thought they were both trying to get to the same endpoint in terms of leadership, but coming at it in a different way," she says, referring to Dubois's notion that a small group of college-educated blacks called "the Talented Tenth" would lead the masses. "Plus Washington was beholden to the institution [Tuskegee] that he was running and to the philanthropists holding the purse strings."

"I would not agree with that," argues another student. "I think Washington is saying more. He's saying, 'Let's get our feet on the ground first.' He uses an economic push for blacks to get a foothold through hard work. DuBois on the other hand is focused more on the social side of change."

The first student reiterates her belief that the two men still had the same end goal -- true equality for blacks -- but different approaches for reaching the goal. "DuBois was top-down, Washington more bottom-up."

Other students jump in, saying they felt that Washington wasn't pushing as much for "racial uplift," but more for basic training, compared to the radical DuBois, who wanted to "challenge the racial hierarchy," especially in the South.

"I think Washington believed in a much slower progress," says another student, citing a line in the Washington paper about working "patiently, quietly, doggedly." Washington, the student reminds the group, grew up on a plantation and lived as a slave.

When the students eventually rearrange the desks and come back together as one group, Reuben asks for feedback on the discussions. One student mentions talking about the need to understand motivations behind donor money at universities, even back in Washington's time. Another talks about how black universities emulated white universities by forming Greek clubs and focusing on sports. Still another mentions that neither DuBois nor Washington mentioned educating women except for one reference in the Washington article to a woman who could become a laundress if her schooling didn't work out.

Before the class ends, the discussion comes back to the topic of Dubois' paper on the Talented Tenth. Reuben asks students what they think DuBois meant by the term. "He was talking about developing the leaders first," says one student. Another questions the elite hierarchy this theory created. To that, another student challenges, "It's interesting that even now, we see the development of leaders as elite, as negative. Why does elite have to be negative?"

Reuben points out that a similar debate about the role of the elite took place at the beginning of the 20th century. "In 1900, just 5 percent of college-aged students as a whole were going to college at all," she says. "It's really a debate about social change and how to exist and perhaps make change in a racially hierarchical society."

Illustration by Tim Walker