Du Bois-Washington Debate as Relevant as Ever

W.E.B. Du Bois

W.E.B. Du Bois

by James A. Bacon

As debate rages in the comments section of Bacon’s Rebellion over the legitimacy of the demands made by African-American student activists at Virginia Commonwealth University last week, I asked myself whether differential graduation rates between different race/ethnicities might be playing a role in the frustration experienced by the student militants. The answer is, probably not. What I found instead was an upbeat story, which, though a few years old, reflects well upon the VCU administration — and, to my mind, represents exactly the kind of policy the university ought to be pursuing.

A pair of reports issued by The Education Trust in 2012 found that VCU had eliminated the graduation gap between African-American and white students between 2004 and 2010, raising the black graduation rate from 34.5% to 49.8%. VCU ranked 16th nationally on the list of “Top 25 Gainers in African-American Student Graduation Rates among Public Institutions,” according to a report summary prepared by the VCU news office. Results improved for Hispanic students as well.

The key to success? VCU’s University College, a program that prepares entering students for college-level work.

Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington

“Our Focused Inquiry Program helps new students experience a college curriculum in a very short time,” said Joseph Marolla, vice provost for instruction and student success. From the article:

The Focused Inquiry I and II courses are the central component of the University College curriculum. Those courses target oral and written communication, critical thinking and problem solving, the development of quantitative abilities, information retrieval and evaluation and collaborative work.

Class sizes are limited to 22 students. Marolla said the 43 faculty members teaching at University College are critical to the success of the program and its students.

Here is a program with 43 faculty members — an expensive commitment — geared to help insufficiently prepared students achieve success at the university.

This strikes me as money well spent. VCU’s proper priority is providing African-American students the academic support that allows them to complete their graduation requirements.  It also strikes me that anyone interested in improving the prospects of African-Americans in Virginia should be focusing on substantive issues like on-time graduation instead of politically potent but ultimately trivial issues such as those articulated by the VCU student protesters.

What we’re seeing played out in the modern American campus is a reprise of the old debate between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois more than a century ago. Where should African-Americans focus their energy: upon education and self-improvement or advancing a civil rights agenda? Du Bois won that debate, resulting in sweeping and much-needed civil rights reforms in the 1960s. Economic gains for poor African-Americans since then have been limited, but African-American political and thought leaders have shown relatively little interest in revisiting core assumptions in light of new conditions. White micro-aggressions and insufficient support for campus cultural institutions aren’t what’s holding back African-Americans today, either at VCU or society at large. Low graduation rates in high school and college are.

As PBS summarizes his thinking, Washington seems more relevant than ever: “He believed in education in the crafts, industrial and farming skills and the cultivation of the virtues of patience, enterprise and thrift. This, he said, would win the respect of whites and lead to African Americans being fully accepted as citizens and integrated into all strata of society.” That assessment may or may not have been valid in the 19th century when virulent racism was still prevalent, but it may be the best path forward for African-Americans in the 21st century when only vestiges of racism survive.

VCU’s African-American students need to ask themselves which will benefit them most: more self improvement and educational achievement or the cultivation of resentment and grievance over symbolic issues.

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16 responses to “Du Bois-Washington Debate as Relevant as Ever

  1. Well said, Sir!



  2. remedial help in College to make up for what was not done in K-12 is not something to tout as proof we are getting better!

    you ought to be asking why kids are getting to college lacking in basic academic skills and critical thinking… and how many of those bigger group of kids who never got the minimal education -never made it to college to get that remedial help.

    • Pretty snarky, Larry.

      Of course we have to fix K-12. But assuming that’s not something that we can accomplish tomorrow, we have to deal with the fact that a lot of kids coming out of high school aren’t prepared for college yet get admitted into college and need help succeeding.

    • If a kid has gotten to college without needed skills, doesn’t he or she still need help now? Ignoring the living person in front of us, and waiting to get all schools equal is going to write off a lot of kids and a lot of lives. Fix it on all fronts.

      From what I see from watching the Richmond schools debate (caveat – I live near-ish, as in not too awful a hike to, but not in, Richmond), poorer public schools do not remotely get the level of urgency in budget funding that they need.

      I am really, really tired of seeing one special project after another (Shockoe Stadium! Bike Race! Bike Avenue! Redskins! Children’s Hospital!) touted as the be all and end all of city revitalization, with exclamation marks and marching bands, when you have schools that are decrepit and are not serving kids well. It’s one thing to argue about extras, but I feel like when you don’t have sound physical structure and a rat-free environment, maybe school needs should be treated AS AN EMERGENCY ALREADY and get funding FIRST.

      I really think the community can live without a bike race et al, but I don’t think it is remotely acceptable to have schools where it rains indoors.

      My cynical take is this – poor kids don’t have well-connected business people who can make a profit off of them – and they aren’t capable of helping the political careers of those who help them.

      • Of course an obvious question is – how do you get accepted at college if you lack required skills in the first place.

        and I don’t think it’s money in K-12. I think it’s priorities.

        you cannot spend for soup to nuts and do it at expense to fundamental core academics – both both college-bound and non-college bound.

        Take a look at most local school budgets – beyond the required match.

        it’s usually millions of dollars for most systems. – what are they spending this money on – if their kids don’t graduate with enough academic competency to go to college without remedial help and what does that say about the kids competencies who are not headed to college?

        and poor schools … you should read this:

        ” More Than 40% of Low-Income Schools Don’t Get a Fair Share of State and Local Funds, Department of Education Research Finds”


        this is a scandal…

        but yes.. how do kids get accepted into college when they are not qualified and have to receive remedial help?

        You say fix all fronts. I agree but jesus.. should this be the normal status quo? When I see this, I see a problem – that needs to be addressed.. not so much a clarion call to “help”.

        we seem bound and determined in this country to blow off the importance of education – whether it’s kids unprepared for college or kids graduating with not enough skill to get a basic job and need entitlements.

        we’re screwed up.

        and remember – this is coming from the guy that Bacon calls a “tax and spend leftist”


        • In theory, there could be mandated transfers of taxpayer cash between public schools and public colleges. If a public school graduates a student, it must warrant the student has mastered the requirements for a diploma. If such student is admitted to college or other post-secondary training, but needs remedial instruction in a subject that the secondary school’s diploma indicates the student has mastered, the public school should be required to transfer funds to the public college to cover the costs for remediation.

          There probably needs to be exceptions for students with severe disabilities or learning problems. I limit my concept (and that’s all it is) to public schools because they would be directly under the control of the state and also receive tax dollars. My concept tries to build on Larry’s argument that we should push back basic instruction as early in the education process as possible. Maybe middle schools should pay high schools and elementary schools pay middle schools.

        • In Richmond, yes, it’s money. Larry, if you do not have buildings that are even physically sound, how can you expect kids to learn?

          This is not trendy yoga classes and team building exercises – this is things like stopping roof leaks, abating the mold that occurred because of said leaks, and demolishing rat-infested additions that are falling down.

          Those things are more important than Shockoe Bottom baseball, than a bike race, than a bike lane, than refurbing Main Street Station for approximately the seventy-fifth time, than a cat fight over whether one central children’s hospital is better than three separate hospital systems, than the Redskins playing here a couple of weeks a year.

          Want an economic development project for the city of Richmond that will really work? Get the schools up to par with the suburbs.

      • But you don’t understand….Economic Development is the be all, end all of all of our existences. Just talk to an economic developer….and I’m not kidding. They’ve fooled almost every local and state official in Virginia into believing this.

        If there is any one problem that plagues local governments in Virginia…it is economic development. You are correct…every locality will spend whatever it takes for any project regardless of how flimsy it looks……and that spending comes before public safety, schools, and public works.

        • And I’ve yet to see one of those projects really pay off in the city. The revitalizations that worked – the Fan district, Carytown, the Museum District – are basically organic, not centrally planned.

          6th Street Marketplace, Redskins, the previous iterations of Main Street Station – if the market doesn’t think it’s a good enough idea to put their own skin in the game, odds are really good that it’s not a good idea to put our money in the game.

          One that did work, obliquely referenced above – Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, NOT built as a revitalization project, that has IMHO helped the area around it by being a really cool part of the neighborhood.

  3. Economic development is good. Subsidized economic development is not so good except in blighted areas. It often privatizes gains and spreads losses to the public. It’s a drug freely consumed by public officials who think the new money will grow on trees.

    • TMT, what I see, too often, is, it’s a handout to connected developers who have heavily contributed to (or in at least one case I can think of, have been convicted of bribing) various public officials who make the decisions.

  4. Virginia’s “independent cities” structure + white flight + schools funded by property taxes = perpetually underfunded Virginia city schools.

    Add that School Boards are entirely separate corporate entities from the local government council/board. The local governing body has power of the purse but that’s it.

    And then School Board members are elected, and with everyone having great ideas about how to fix schools, and teachers, and kids, political agendas such as privatization and free-market principles, or Virginia’s version of union interests, or other theories can gain sway. (Disclosure: I had the honor of serving as assistant Campaign Manager for the (successful) re-election of Lillie Jessie for the PWC School Board Occoquan District. So I come off of this with some recent knowledge, besides being descended from three generation of teachers.)

    But underprivileged communities suffer from their underprivilege in a myriad of ways, that school budgets and innovative policies aren’t going to fix.

    P.S. – In theory, economic development is good for school budgets, because most localities load their tax base onto commercial uses.

    • IMHO that’s yesterday’s problem – things have evolved a bit. Today, what I see, over and over, in Richmond, is not white flight. What I see are young people living in the city until they’re ready to have kids, after which they move to an area with better schools. These aren’t white kids fleeing black people, they’re people of all races leaving and going to better school districts. Not everyone can afford Collegiate.

      I like living in the exurbs, and that’s fine. A lot of people like living in Richmond, which is a charming city with a ton to offer. Very few of my friends and co-workers have stayed in Richmond after their kids got to school age. That’s a steady stream of potential taxpayers leaving right as they’re starting to become prosperous.

      Economic development in the organic sense – the free market – really does help school budgets. Government planned economic development, not so much. I cannot for the life of me think of a single successful economic development project that the City of Richmond has put forward. Cultural, yes, several – economic, I can think of a long list of extremely expensive failures that were funded instead of badly needed school infrastructure.

  5. And Washington was right even back then if you consider such phenomena as the Hairston family, which inhabited plantations along the North Carolina-Virginia border. As were many in the South, the family was split between white and black, cross breeding being not just limited to Jefferson. One side of the family pronounced it “Har-ston”, the other side “Hare-ston” When slavery came to an end, the white side of the family crashed pretty quickly. The black side thrived. Pop quiz: Why was that?

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