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Ch. 3: The Acedemic Aims

By Roscoe Conkling Bruce

The Negro needs industrial training in eminent degree, because the capacity for continuous labor is a requisite of civilized living; because, indeed, the very first step in social advance must be economic; because the industrial monopoly with which slavery encompassed black men has fallen shattered before the trumpet-blast of white labor and eager competition; and, finally, because no instrument of moral education is more effective upon the mass of mankind than cheerful and intelligent work. These ideas powerfully voiced, together with an unusually magnanimous attitude toward the white South, have set the man who toiled doggedly up from slavery, upon a hill apart. These things are distinctive of this man; they suggest his temper, his spirit, his point of view; but they do not exhaust his interests. Similarly, the distinctive feature of Tuskegee—adequate provision for industrial training—sets it upon a hill apart, but by a whimsical perversity this major feature is in some quarters assumed to be the whole school. A moment's reflection shows such a view to be mistaken.


Director of the Academic Department.

The very industries at Tuskegee presuppose a considerable range of academic study. Tuskegee does not graduate hoe-hands or plowboys. Agriculture is, of course, fundamental—fundamental in recognition of the fact that the Negro population is mainly a farming population, and of the truth that something must be done to stem the swelling tide which each year sweeps thousands of black men and women and children from the sunlit monotony of the plantation to the sunless iniquity of the slums, from a drudgery that is not quite cheerless to a competition that is altogether merciless. But the teaching of agriculture, even in its elementary stages, presupposes a considerable amount of academic preparation. To be sure, a flourishing garden may be made and managed by bright-eyed tots just out of the kindergarten, but how can commercial fertilizers be carefully analyzed by a boy who has made no study of general chemistry? and how can a balanced ration be adjusted by an illiterate person? Similarly, the girl in the laundry does not make soap by rote, but by principle; and the girl in the dressmaking-shop does not cut out her pattern by luck, or guess, or instinct, or rule of thumb, but by geometry. And so the successful teaching of the industries demands no mean amount of academic preparation. In this lies the technical utility of Tuskegee's Academic Department.

Then, too, a public service has been rendered by Hampton and Tuskegee in showing that industrial training—the system in which the student learns by doing and is paid for the commodities he produces—may be so managed as to educate. Among the excellencies of industrial training, I would state that the severe commercial test in which sentiment plays no part is applied as consistently to the student's labor as is the force of gravitation to a falling body. Here we must keep in mind the unavoidably concrete nature of the product, whether satisfactory or not; the discipline such training affords in organized endeavor; the stimulus it offers to all the virtues of a drudgery which, though it repel an unusually ardent and sensitive temperament, yet wears a precious jewel in its head; and an exceptionally keen sense of responsibility, since on occasion large amounts of money and the esteem of the school at large and the lives of a student's fellows depend upon his circumspection and skill. Such training educates.

But that would indeed be a sorry program of education which blinked the fact that the student must be rendered responsive to the nobler ideals of the human race, that his eyes must be opened to the immanent values of life. If a clear title to forty acres and a mule represents the extreme upper limit of a black man's ambition, why call him a man? If a bank-account represents the sum of his happiness, that happiness lacks humanity. If you would educate for life, you must arouse spiritual interests. "The life is more than meat, and the body than raiment." Through history and literature the Tuskegee student is brought to develop a criticism, an appreciation of life and the worthier ends of human striving. To such a discipline, however elementary, the critic will not, I take it, begrudge the name "education."

And if the reader wavers in contemplating the problems of trudging Negroes, remember that the type of Negro who is a menace to the community is he who, in moments of leisure, responds to somewhat grosser incentives than the poetry of Longfellow, the romance of Hawthorne, and the philosophy of Emerson. I would reassure your idealism with this counsel of prudence.

Another question presses: Does the value of Tuskegee lie in the fact that the school equips for happy lives merely as many persons as are subjected to the immediate play of its influences; that its circle of efficiency includes only as many as are enrolled in its various courses? To that question every teacher in the school and the mass of graduates and students would give an emphatic, a decisive, No! The real value of the school lies in the service rendered to the people of the communities where our young folks go to live and labor. Now, work in wood and iron, however assiduously prosecuted, never erected in any human being's heart a passion for social service; a finer material must be used, a material finer than gold. And so the plan and deeper intent of Tuskegee Institute are incapable of realization without the incentives supplied by history and literature.

Finally, there is a trade for which the academic studies, supplemented by specific normal instruction, are the direct preparation—teaching school. In the census year there were over 21,000 Negro school-teachers in the United States, and in the decade 1890-1900 the ratio of increase was more than twice as rapid as that of the Negro population; but, nevertheless, there were in 1900 more than twice as many teachers in the South per 10,000 white children as per 10,000 colored. But such data can not even approximately indicate the relative amounts of teaching enjoyed by these two classes of children, for the statistical method can not express the incalculable disparity in teaching-efficiency.

A friend of mine—a graduate of Brown University—was for several years a member of a board which corrected the examination-papers of Negro candidates for teachers' certificates in a certain Southern State where the school facilities for the Negro population are exceptionally good; but he confessed to me that repeatedly not a paper submitted deserved a passing mark, but the board was "simply compelled to grant certificates in order to provide teachers enough to go around." Nor is such a dearth of black pedagogues in the least extraordinary. The mission of Tuskegee Institute is largely to supply measurably well-equipped teachers for the schools—teachers able and eager to teach gardening and carpentry as well as grammar and arithmetic, teachers who seek to organize the social life of their communities upon wholesome principles, tactfully restraining grossness and unobtrusively proffering new and nobler sources of enjoyment. And so the academic studies are wrought into the essential scheme of Tuskegee's work.

Let us inspect with some closeness the organization of the institution. The student-body is fundamentally divided into day-students and night-students. The night-students work in the industries, largely at common labor, all day and every day, and go to school at night, thus paying their current board bills, and accumulating such credits at the Treasurer's office as will later defray their expenses in the day-school. The day-school students are divided perpendicularly through the classes into two sections, section No. 1 working in the industries every other day for three days a week and attending academic classes the remaining three days, while this situation is exactly reversed for section No. 2. Thus every week-day half of each day-school class is in the Academic Department, while the other half is in the Industrial. This arrangement induces a wholesome rivalry between the students of the two sections, and effects an equal distribution of the working force and skill over every week-day.

The day-school students consist, then, of two classes of persons: those who, as night-students, have accumulated credits sufficient to pay their way in the day-school, and those whose families are able to pay a considerable part of their expenses. The earnings of a student in the day-school can not be large enough to pay his current board bill, but such a student is ordinarily enjoying the valuable advantage of working at one of the more skilled trades.

The night-school student, perhaps, because of greater maturity in years and experience, may be relied upon to apply himself with the utmost diligence to his academic studies; so, in much less than half the time-allotment, he advances in his academic studies about half as fast as the day-school student. This schedule did not spring full-fledged from the seething brain of any theorist; it is no fatuous imitation of the educational practise of some remote and presumptively dissimilar institution; it has, so to say, elaborated itself in adjustment to the actual needs of the particular situation. This provision boasts not of novelty, but of utility; though not ideal, it is practicable. But the central fact is that this Tuskegee Plan, while clearly securing ample time for the teaching of the industries, makes possible no mean amount of academic study.

In order more clearly to exhibit the grounds of this proposition, I shall refer in some slight detail to the course of study in English and in Mathematics.

Mathematics represents the group of academic studies which possess direct technical value for the industries; moreover, it is a pretty good index of the grades comprehended in the Academic Department. In the lowest class in the day-school—there is one lower in the night-school—the arithmetical tables are mastered, and fractions introduced and developed with the use of liquid, dry, surface, and time measures; whereas in the Senior class algebra is studied through quadratics and plane geometry through the "area of polygons." That is to say, the lowest day-school class is about equivalent to a fourth grade in the North, and the Senior to the first or the second year (barring the foreign languages) in a Northern high school.


Despite a much smaller time-allotment, our students, roughly speaking, keep pace with Northern students because they are older and somewhat more serious, because the course is shortened by the elimination of uselessly perplexing topics in arithmetic like compound proportion and cube root, but chiefly because the utility of mathematics is made vivid, and vigorous interest aroused by its immediate application in class-room and shop to problems arising in the industries. Our students are not stuffed like sausages with rules and definitions, mathematical or other; they ascend to general principles through the analysis of concrete cases.

English serves to represent the group of studies that exert a liberalizing influence upon the student, that possess a cultural rather than a technical value. From oral lessons in language in the lower classes, the students advance to a modicum of technical grammar in the middle of the course, and hence to the rhetoric of the Senior year. Moreover, an unusually large amount of written composition is insisted upon, the compositions being used not merely to discipline the student in chaste feeling, consecutive thinking, and efficient expression, but also to sharpen his powers of observation and to stimulate him to pick out of his daily experience the elements that are significant. School readers are used in the lower classes because the readers present economically and compactly a whole gamut of literary styles and forms. These readers are importantly supplemented and gradually superseded by certain classics appropriate to the grades. The classic, whether Robinson Crusoe, or Ivanhoe, Rip Van Winkle, the House of Seven Gables, or The Merchant of Venice, presents an artistic whole, and permits the students to acquire some sense of literary structure. The dominant motive in literary instruction is, perhaps, esthetic, but I am convinced that the ethical influence of this instruction at Tuskegee is profound and abiding.

However liberal the provisions of the academic curriculum, the value of the department is finally determined by the devotion and ability of the teachers. Universities and normal schools, and the seasoned staffs of public-school systems—from these sources, whether in Massachusetts, California, or Tennessee, Principal Washington has gathered a force of academic teachers of rare ability and devotion. Eminent for personality rather than for method, these teachers are no tyros in method. In such hands the excellent features of the curriculum are raised to the N-th power.


Finally, academic and industrial teachers are animated with a sentiment of solidarity, with an esprit de corps, which solves many a problem of conflicting duty and jurisdiction, and which must impress the student with the essential unity of Tuskegee's endeavor to equip men and women for life. The crude, stumbling, sightless plantation-boy who lives in the environment of Tuskegee for three or four years, departs with an address, an alertness, a resourcefulness, and above all a spirit of service, that announce the educated man.

Booker T. Washington