Vocational training or higher education: the Washington-DuBois debate

One of the more famous debates in Black history was the battle between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois. In the United States at the turn of the 20th century, the Black community was still in the process of getting its footing following the abolition of slavery. Washington and DuBois represented two very different visions for Black advancement in a segregated and stratified America. This debate has echoes today as politicians and educators debate whether vocational training or liberal arts education is the key to advancement into the American middle class.

Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington was born into slavery in Virginia in 1856. Following emancipation, his family moved to West Virginia where he taught himself to read. He saved money from working in salt furnaces and coal mines to fund his education at the Hampton Institute (now Hampton University).

At the age of 25, Washington was recommended to lead the newly founded Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University). After a year of holding classes at a local church, Washington purchased former plantation land and had the students literally build the campus of the school. Men and women at Tuskegee were provided an education in academics as well as trades. Students were not merely training to be tradesfolk but to teach trades to others.

The education provided to students at Tuskegee during its early years reflected Washington’s general philosophy of education. Washington believed that social equality would come not from political agitation but from social integration. It was by making themselves socially necessary with business and trades that Black people would achieve equal civil rights.

W.E.B. DuBois

W.E.B. DuBois was born in Massachusetts in 1868. He grew up going to integrated schools where his intellectual ability was recognized and encouraged. With money donated from neighbors, DuBois attended Fisk University in Tennessee. His time in the south around the experience of Jim Crow, lynchings, and bigotry was formative in his political development.

He returned to Massachusetts to complete a second bachelor’s degree from Harvard College as Harvard University did not accept credits from Fisk. In 1895, DuBois became the first African American to earn a PhD from Harvard University, writing his dissertation in sociology on the history of the transatlantic slave trade.

DuBois’ experience in the south made him a fierce proponent of Black civil rights, initially inducing him to join the ranks of Booker T. Washington. When Washington gave a speech at the Atlanta Exposition that came to be known as the “Atlanta Compromise,” DuBois and a number of other noted Black leaders broke ranks as radical critics.

The Atlanta Compromise & the Talented Tenth

The Atlanta Compromise outlined Booker T. Washington’s vision for the path to Black equality. He called the draw towards political representation over industrial achievement during Reconstruction a misguided mistake. Emphasis on legislative equality, Booker reasoned, was “artificial forcing” bound for increased animosity rather than integration. Rather, the Black community ought to invest in its own economic prosperity, earning the respect of southern whites through industriousness.

DuBois argued in a reply to Washington that not only was the plan destined for failure, but that the negative effects of such a conciliatory attitude on civil rights had already been felt by the Black community. In exchange for giving up political representation, redress of grievance, and higher education, the post-Reconstruction era rewarded the Black community with voting disenfranchisement, Jim Crow, and drained resources for Black institutions.

Contrary to Washington, DuBois fiercely advocated for the right of Black folks to pursue a liberal arts education to develop what he called the “Talented Tenth.” DuBois argued that every nation drew its success from an enlightened tenth of the population responsible for its cultural and moral development. For true Black emancipation, DuBois argued that this Talented Tenth should occupy positions of political and social power in order to safeguard the rights and freedoms of the rest of the Black nation. To DuBois, Washington’s vision of an industrious and prosperous Black community was impossible without political power in place to safeguard their place in commerce and civic life.

Debate into the Present

In the end, neither side of the Washington-DuBois debate can be said to have won. The Black civil-rights movement that DuBois helped found, led by scholars and clergy, would eventually see an end to segregation and disenfranchisement. Simultaneously, the vocational institutions Washington’s programme inspired gave millions of southern Black folks the trades skills necessary to make a decent life for themselves.

Echoes of this debate can still be heard today as policymakers debate over whether liberal arts education or vocational training is the key to bringing low-income Americans into the American middle class. Over time, political priorities have vacillated between these two poles largely reflecting the arguments of Washington and DuBois. At JEI however, we do not believe that these two positions are so opposed as might meet the eye.

Our approach at JEI embraces hands-on learning, encouraging our students to connect their academic pursuits to their practical application. Our newest program, Brain Safari, embodies this philosophy exercising our students’ creative thinking and problem-solving skills. JEI provides students A Better Life Through Better Education, no matter where their life path takes them.

Like Washington, JEI emphasizes self-learning, instilling a discipline allowing students to create their own opportunities through their own creative thinking. However, like DuBois, JEI touts a program that is tailored to cultivating each student’s abilities in the pursuit of academic excellence. At JEI, we give students skills they can apply to anywhere their life takes them. To learn more about JEI programsfind a center near you!