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LEARNING FROM MEN AND THINGS
It has been my fortune to be associated all my life with a problem—a hard, perplexing, but important problem. There was a time when I looked upon this fact as a great misfortune. It seemed to me a great hardship that I was born poor, and it seemed an even greater hardship that I should have been born a Negro. I did not like to admit, even to myself, that I felt this way about the matter, because it seemed to me an indication of weakness and cowardice for any man to complain about the condition he was born to. Later I came to the conclusion that it was not only weak and cowardly, but that it was a mistake to think of the matter in the way in which I had done. I came to see that, along with his disadvantages, the Negro in America had some advantages, and I made up my mind that opportunities that had been denied him from without could be more than made up by greater concentration and power within.
Perhaps I can illustrate what I mean by a fact I learned while I was in school. I recall my teacher's explaining to the class one day how it was that steam or any other form of energy, if allowed to escape and dissipate itself, loses its value as a motive power. Energy must be confined; steam must be locked in a boiler in order to generate power. The same thing seems to have been true in the case of the Negro. Where the Negro has met with discriminations and with difficulties because of his race, he has invariably tended to get up more steam. When this steam has been rightly directed and controlled, it has become a great force in the upbuilding of the race. If, on the contrary, it merely spent itself in fruitless agitation and hot air, no good has come of it.
Paradoxical as it may seem, the difficulties that the Negro has met since emancipation have, in my opinion, not always, but on the whole, helped him more than they have hindered him. For example, I think the progress which the Negro has made within less than half a century in the matter of learning to read and write the English language has been due in large part to the fact that, in slavery, this knowledge was forbidden him. My experience and observation have taught me that people who try to withold the best things in civilization from any group of people, or race of people, not infrequently aid that people to the very things that they are trying to withhold from them. I am sure that, in my own case, I should never have made the efforts that I did make in my early boyhood to get an education and still later to develop the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama if I had not been conscious of the fact that there were a large number of people in the world who did not believe that the Negro boy could learn or that members of the Negro race could build up and conduct a large institution of learning.
A wider acquaintance with men in all the different grades of life taught me that the Negro's case is not peculiar. The majority of successful men are persons who have had difficulties to overcome, problems to master; and, in overcoming those difficulties and mastering those problems, they have gained strength of mind and a clearness of vision that few persons who have lived a life of ease have been able to attain. Experience has taught me, in fact, that no man should be pitied because, every day in his life, he faces a hard, stubborn problem, but rather that it is the man who has no problem to solve, no hardships to face, who is to be pitied.
His misfortune consists in the fact that he has nothing in his life which will strengthen and form his character; nothing to call out his latent powers, and deepen and widen his hold on life. It has come home to me more in recent years that I have had, just because my life has been connected with a problem, some unusual opportunities. I have had unusual opportunities for example in getting an education in the broader sense of the word.
If I had not been born a slave, for example, I never could have had the opportunity, perhaps, of associating day by day with the most ignorant people, so far as books are concerned, and thus coming in contact with people of this class at first hand. The most fortunate part of my early experience was that which gave me the opportunity of getting into direct contact and of communing with and taking lessons from the old class of coloured people who have been slaves. At the present time few experiences afford me more genuine pleasure than to get a day or a half a day off and go out into the country, miles from town and railroad, and spend the time in close contact with a coloured farmer and his family.
And then I have felt for a long while that, if I had not been a slave and lived on a slave plantation, I never would have had the opportunity to learn nature, to love the soil, to love cows and pigs and trees and flowers and birds and worms and creeping things. I have always been intensely fond of outdoor life. Perhaps the explanation for this lies partly in the fact that I was born nearly out of doors. I have also, from my earliest childhood, been very fond of animals and fowls. When I was but a child, and a slave, I had close and interesting acquaintances with animals.
During my childhood days, as a slave, I did not see very much of my mother, since she was obliged to leave her children very early in the morning to begin her day's work. The early departure of my mother often made the matter of my securing breakfast uncertain. This led to my first intimate acquaintance with animals.
In those days it was the custom upon the plantation to boil the Indian corn that was fed to the cows and pigs. At times, when I had failed to get any other breakfast, I used to go to the places where the cows and pigs were fed and make my breakfast off this boiled corn, or else go to the place where it was the custom to boil the corn, and get my share there before it was taken to the animals.
If I was not there at the exact moment of feeding, I could still find enough corn scattered around the fence or the trough to satisfy me. Some people may think that this was a pretty bad way in which to get one's food, but, leaving out the name and the associations, there was nothing very bad about it. Any one who has eaten hardboiled corn knows it has a delicious taste. I never pass a pot of boiled corn now without yielding to the temptation to eat a few grains.
I think that I owe a great deal of my present strength and ability to work to my love of outdoor life. It is true that the amount of time that I can spend in the open air is now very limited. Taken on average, it is perhaps not more than an hour a day, but I make the most of that hour. In addition to this I get much pleasure out of the anticipation and the planning for that hour.
When I am at my home at Tuskegee, I usually find a way, by rising early in the morning, to spend at least half an hour in my garden, or with my fowls, pigs, or cows. As far as I can get the time, I like to find the new eggs each morning myself, and when at home am selfish enough to permit no one else to do this in my place. As with the growing plants, there is a sense of freshness and newness and of restfulness in connection with the finding and handling of newly laid eggs that is delightful to me. Both the anticipation and the realization are most pleasing. I begin the day by seeing how many eggs I can find, or how many little chickens there are that are just beginning to peep through the shells.
I am deeply interested in the different kinds of fowls, and, aside from the large number grown by the school in its poultry house and yards, I grow at my own home common chickens, Plymouth Rocks, Buff Cochins and Brahmas, Peking ducks, and fan-tailed pigeons.
The pig, I think, is my favourite animal. I do not know how this will strike the taste of my readers, but it is true. In addition to some common bred pigs, I keep a few Berkshires and some Poland Chinas; and it is a real pleasure to me to watch their development and increase from month to month. Practically all the pork used in my family is of my own raising.
This will, perhaps, illustrate what I mean when I say that I have gotten a large part of my education from actual contact with things, rather than through the medium of books. I like to touch things and handle them; I like to watch plants grow and observe the behaviour of animals. For the same reason, I like to deal with things, as far as possible, at first hand, in the way that the carpenter deals with wood, the blacksmith with iron, and the farmer with the earth. I believe that there is something gained by getting acquainted, in the way which I have described, with the physical world about you that is almost indispensable.
A number of years ago, in a book called, "Up From Slavery," I told a story of my early life, describing the manner in which I got my early schooling and the circumstances under which I came to start the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. At the time that school was organized I had read very little, and, in fact, few books on the subject of teaching, and knew very little about the science of education and pedagogy. I had had the advantage of going through an exceptional school at Hampton and of coming in contact with an inspired teacher in General Armstrong; but I had never attempted to formulate the methods of teaching I used in that school, and I had very little experience in applying them to the new and difficult problems I met as soon as I attempted to conduct a school of my own. What I learned about the science of education I learned in my efforts in working out the plans for, and organizing and perfecting the educational methods at, Tuskegee.
The necessity of collecting large sums of money every year to carry on the work at Tuskegee compelled me to travel much and brought me in contact with all kinds of people. As soon as I began to meet educated and cultivated people, people who had had the advantage of study in higher institutions of learning, as well as the advantages of much reading and travel, I soon became conscious of my own disadvantages. I found that the people I met were able to speak fluently and with perfect familiarity about a great many things with which I was acquainted in only the vaguest sort of way. In speaking they used words and phrases from authors whom I had never read and often never heard of. All this made me feel more keenly my deficiencies, and the more I thought about it the more it troubled and worried me. It made me feel all the more badly because I discovered that, if I were to carry on the work I had undertaken to do, if I was ever going to accomplish any of the things that it seemed to me important to do, I should never find time, no matter how diligent and studious I might be, to overtake them and possess myself of the knowledge and familiarity with books for which I envied those persons who had been more highly educated than myself.
After a time, however, I found that while I was at a certain disadvantage among highly educated and cultivated people in certain directions, I had certain advantages over them in others. I found that the man who has an intimate acquaintance with some department of life through personal experience has a great advantage over persons who have gained their knowledge of life almost entirely through books. I found also that, by using my personal experience and observation; by making use of the stories that I had heard, as illustrations; by relating some incident that happened in my own case or some incident that I had heard from some one else, I could frequently express what I had to say in a much clearer and more impressive way than if I made use of the language of books or the statements and quotations from the authors of books. More than that, as I reflected upon the matter, I discovered that these authors, in their books, were after all merely making use of their own experiences or expressing ideas which they had worked out in actual life, and that to make use of their language and ideas was merely to get life second hand.
The result was that I made up my mind that I would try to make up for my defects in my knowledge of books by my knowledge of men and things. I said I would take living men and women for my study, and I would give the closest attention possible to everything that was going on in the world about me. I determined that I would get my education out of my work; I would learn about education in solving the problems of the school as they arose from day to day, and learn about life by learning to deal with men. I said to myself that I would try to learn something from every man I met; make him my text-book, read him, study him, and learn something from him. So I began deliberately to try to learn from men. I learned something from big men and something from little men, from the man with prejudice and the man without prejudice. As I studied and understood them, I found that I began to like men better; even those who treated me badly did not cause me to lose my temper or patience, as soon as I found that I could learn something from them.
For example, some years ago, I had an experience which taught me a lesson in politeness and liberality which I shall long remember. I was in a large city making calls on wealthy people in order to interest them in our work at Tuskegee Institute. I called at the office of a man, and he spoke to me in the most abrupt and insulting manner. He not only refused to give any money but spoke of my race in a manner that no gentleman of culture ought ever to permit himself to speak of another race. A few minutes later I called on another gentleman in the same city, who received me politely, thanked me for calling upon him, but explained that he was so situated that he could not help me. My interview with the first man occupied about twice as much of his time and my time as was true of the second gentleman. I learned from this experience that it takes no more time to be polite to every one than it does to be rude.
During the later years of my experience I have had the good fortune to study not only white men and learn from them, but coloured men as well. In my earlier experiences I used to have sympathy with the coloured people who were narrow and bitter toward white people. As I grew older I began to study that class of coloured people, and I found that they did not get anywhere, that their bitterness and narrowness toward the white man did not hurt the white man or change his feeling toward the coloured race, but that, in almost every case, the cherishing of such feeling toward the white man reacted upon the coloured man and made him narrow and bitter.
In the chapters which follow, I have given some account of the way in which my work has brought me in contact, not so much with plants and animals and with physical objects, but rather with human institutions, with politics, with newspapers, with educational and social problems of various kinds and descriptions, and I have tried to indicate in every case the way in which I have been educated through them.
One of the purposes in writing these later chapters from my experience is to complete the story of my education which I began in the book, "Up From Slavery"; to answer the questions I have frequently been asked as to how I have worked out for myself the educational methods which we are now using at Tuskegee; and, finally, to illustrate, for the benefit of the members of my own race, some of the ways in which a people who are struggling upward may turn disadvantages into opportunities; how they may gain within themselves something that will compensate them for what they have been deprived of from without.
If I have learned much from things, I have learned more from men. The work that I started to do brought me early in contact with some of the most generous, high-minded and public-spirited persons in the country. In the chapters that follow I have tried to indicate what I have learned from contact with those men. Perhaps I can best indicate the way in which I have been educated by my contact with these men if I tell something of my relations with one man from whom, after General Armstrong, my first teacher, I learned, perhaps, more than from any other. I refer to the late William H. Baldwin, Jr.
I well remember my first meeting with Mr. Baldwin, although the exact date has now slipped from my memory. He was at that time manager and vice-president of the Southern Railway, with headquarters in Washington, D.C. I had been given a letter to him by his father, in Boston. I found him one morning in his office and presented this letter, which he read over carefully, as was his custom in such matters. Then we began talking about the school at Tuskegee and its work. I had been in the room but a few minutes when the conviction forced itself upon me that I had met a man who could thoroughly understand me and whom I understood. Indeed, I had the feeling that I was in the presence of one in whose mind there was neither faltering nor concealment, and one from whom it would be impossible to hide a single thought or purpose. I never had occasion, during all the years that I knew Mr. Baldwin, to change the opinion formed of him at my first visit, or to feel that the understanding established between us then was ever clouded or diminished.
Mr. Baldwin did not at first manifest any definite interest in the work at Tuskegee. He said he would come down and "look us over" and if he found we were doing "the real thing," as he expressed it, he would do anything he could to help us.
Excerpted from My Larger Education by Booker T. Washington. Copyright © 2013 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Posted October 31, 2011
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