I conclude every semester teaching university composition by telling my students this story:
In his memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the famous runaway slave and eloquent speaker recounts how he learned to read. Sold at age ten, his new master’s wife took pity on the boy and began to teach him the alphabet. When the master discovered young Frederick had rudimentary literacy, the master beat the slave within an inch of his life. The master then delivered a matching beating to his wife, and declared that, if Frederick continued learning to read, the master wouldn’t hesitate to hang him.
After the story, I ask my students why the master would beat not only his slave, but his own wife, because the slave was learning to read? In the antebellum American South, literate slaves were hanged. Free people who taught slaves to read faced stiff fines and prison, and though they seldom risked execution, some white activists and free black teachers were lynched. What made literacy so offensive?
My students never get the answer right away. After watching them tapdance, I rephrase myself: what can literate slaves do that illiterate slaves cannot? Now they recite stock answers—“Follow the news?” “Write their ideas?” “Think?”—until one, usually near the back, finally reaches the right answer. Literate slaves can communicate with someone not right in front of them. Corollary: literate slaves can organize.
Put another way, literacy gives individuals power over their own lives. Similarly, mathematics isn’t about balancing your checkbook; it grants the ability to apply reason and answer questions you’ve never encountered before. History lets us see our actions in humanity’s larger social context. Educated persons, by definition, do not necessarily know their subjects. They know themselves, and no other human being can ever unjustly dominate them.
Early American colonists claimed to save slaves’ souls, so teaching them to read Scripture was mandatory. But after King Cotton made bottomless unpaid labor necessary, and Nat Turner’s rebellion proved slaves weren’t really happy, keeping slaves compliant took priority. (The BBC’s Huw Edwards reveals something similarly controversial in the history of British Sunday School: “if you could read the Bible, you could also read Tom Paine's The Rights of Man.”)
Compared to American slaves or British colliers, my students—usually white, usually middle class—generally come to school secure that nobody will beat them with a hickory switch for refusing to tote that bale or drag that cart. Though my small regional university receives few scions of wealth, my students generally do not fear going hungry, unclothed, or otherwise deprived. This can let them feel complacent, and take education for granted.
Resisting apathy isn’t helped by students’ prior schooling. When I ask about their background in my field, many say they see writing, literacy, and most English language and literature as distant from their real lives. If they can complete a job application and write e-mails and text messages, they’re satisfied, which makes me an imposition on their time.
I can’t blame them, if their education resembled mine. My 9th grade English teacher said our class could tell Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea was profound because we couldn’t understand it. Only when I entered the university and saw future teachers taught did I realize my teacher probably didn’t understand the book either. Most teacher education consists of classroom management; prospective teachers have little grounding in their subjects.
Please don’t misunderstand: I respect teachers. Most I’ve met are enthusiastic people of high ideals and sterling character. But both teacher training and school culture encourage them to perpetuate ignorance and boredom in their students. Administrators increasingly come from non-educational backgrounds. American schools, already underfunded and short-staffed, are generally first on the chopping block during budget cuts.
Convinced that core academic disciplines are distant and artificial, but told repeatedly that they need degrees to get good jobs, students enroll at universities already alienated and bored. We teachers must (metaphorically) beat them to make them read. The reversal from Frederick Douglass is complete. Education no longer occurs at school, and our efforts have already failed.
Unless the point of school is to encourage illiteracy, innumeracy, and indifference. Unless school deliberately produces docile graduates who look to others for motivation and identity. Then school is a rousing success. But I cannot accept that. We must recapture that Frederick Douglass spirit, if not for society’s cultural and economic future, then because that attitude is just ethically right.
The time for change is now.