In keeping with the theme of books by men who were committed to true education rather than simply filling the head with facts, I give you Character Building, by Booker T. Washington.
This is actually a series of 37 lectures Washington gave to students at The Tuskegee Institute, which he founded in 1881. Most of those students were dispatched around the South to start new schools to educate Negro* children.
Fun fact: The elementary school I attended was founded in 1888 by a couple who had attended Tuskegee Institute. By the time I got there in the 1970’s, it had been long sucked in to the public school system, but it still bears its original name.
You can read Character Building for free here , as is true of almost all of Booker T. Washington’s writings.
Almost nothing that Washington says here would be readily accepted or embraced by today’s university students. There would be cursory nods given to portions, but Washington was far too invested in personal responsibility, discipline, and moral uprightness as a precursor to a good life for today’s generation at large, and today’s black culture in particular.
I stress today’s black culture because there was a true and excellent, a golden age if you will, of black American culture. One that is mostly absent today. Indeed, Washington’s understanding of what a good life entailed was much simpler, far less glamorous, and required more hard work than today’s culture would tolerate.
Rather than blather on, I’ll give you man’s words for himself, with the hope that you will be inclined to read further. On the uselessness of dwelling on negatives:
It is often very easy to influence others in the wrong direction, and to grow into such a moody fault-finding disposition that one not only is miserable and unhappy himself, but makes everyone with whom he comes in contact miserable and unhappy. The persons who live constantly in a fault-finding atmosphere, who see only the dark side of life, become negative characters. They are the people who never go forward. They never suggest a line of activity. They live simply on the negative side of life.
On the importance of thinking:
Now no individual can help another individual unless he himself is strong. You notice that the curriculum here goes along in three directions along the line of labor, of academic training, and of moral and religious training. We expect those who are here to keep strong, and to make themselves efficient in these three directions, in each of which you are to learn to be leaders.
Some people are able to do a thing when they are directed to do it, but people of that kind are not worth very much. There are people in the world who never think, who never map out anything for themselves, who have to wait to be told what to do. People of that kind are not worth anything. They really ought to pay rent for the air they breathe, for they only vitiate it. Now we do not want such people as those here. We want people who are going to think, people who are going to prepare themselves.
On the importance of respecting authority (uh-oh!):
Some of you are going to find it difficult to obey orders. Sometimes orders will be given you which you think are wrong and unjust. Perhaps orders will be given you sometimes that really are unjust. In that respect no institution is perfect. But I want to learn this lesson in respect to orders – that it is always best to learn to obey orders and respect authority – that it is better ten time over for you to obey an order that you know is wrong, and which per- haps was given you in a wrong spirit or with a mistaken motive. It is better for you to obey even such an order as that, thank it is for any individual to get into the habit of disobeying and not respecting those in authority.’
Make up your mind that if you want to add to your happiness and strength of character, you are, before all things else, going to learn to obey. If it should happen that for a minute, or five minutes, one of your fellow students is placed in authority over you, that student’s commands should be sacred. You should obey his commands just as quickly as you would obey those of the highest officer in this institution. Learn that it is no disgrace to obey those in authority. One of the highest and surest signs of civilization is that a people have learned to obey the commands of those who are placed over them. I want to add here that it is to the credit of this institution that, with very few exceptions, the students have always been ready and willing to respect authority.
On staying busy, out of trouble, and the virtues of country life. I am resisting the urge to paste this entire chapter. If you read nothing else, read this:
A large proportion of you are to go from here into great cities. Some of you will go into such cities as Montgomery, and some, perhaps, will go into the cities of the North-although I hope that the most of you will see your way clear to remain in the South. I believe that you will do better to remain in the country districts than to go into the cities. I believe that you will find it to your advantage in every way to try to live in a small town, or in a country district, rather than in a city. I believe that we are at our best in country life-in agricultural life-and too often at our worst in city life. Now when you go out into the world for your-selves, you must remember in the first place that you cannot hold your-selves up unless you keep engaged and out of idleness. No idle person is ever safe, whether he be rich or poor. Make up your minds, whether you are to live in the city, or in the country that you are going to be constantly employed.
In a rich and prosperous country like America there is absolutely no excuse for persons living in idleness. I have little patience with persons who go around whining that they cannot find anything to do. Especially is this true in the South. Where the soil is cheap there is little or no excuse for any man or woman going about complaining that he or she cannot find work. You cannot set proper examples unless you, yourself, are constantly employed. See to it, then, whether you live in a city, a town, or in a country district, that you are constantly employed when you are not engaged in the proper kind of recreation, or in rest. Unless you do this you will find that you will go down as thousands of our young men have gone down-as thousands of our young men are constantly going down who yield to the temptations which beset them.
Refrain from staking your earnings upon games of chance. See to it that you pass by those things which tend to your degradation. Teach this to others. Teach those with whom you come in contact that they cannot lead strong, moral lives unless they keep away from the gambling table. See to it that you regulate your life properly; that you regulate your hours of sleep.
Have the proper kinds of recreation. Quite a number of our young men in the cities stay up until twelve, one and two o’clock each night. Sometimes they are at a dance, and sometimes at the gambling table, or in some brothel, or drinking in some saloon. As a result they go late to their work, and in a short time you hear them complaining about having lost their positions. They will tell you that they have last their jobs on account of race prejudice, or because their former employers are not going to hire colored help any longer. But you will find, if you learn the real circumstances, that it is much more likely they have lost their jobs because they were not punctual, or on account of carelessness.
On keeping good company and being content at home:
You cannot hope to succeed if you keep bad company. As far as possible, try to form the habit of spending your nights at home. There is nothing worse for a young man or young woman than to get into the habit of thinking that he or she must spend every night on the street or in some public place.
On what it means to be truly educated:
I want you to get it firmly fixed in your minds that books, indus-tries, or tools of any character, no matter how thoroughly you master them, do not within themselves constitute education. Committing to memory pages of written matter, or becoming deft in the handling of tools, is not the supreme thing at which education aims. Books, tools, and industries are but the means to fit you for something that is higher and better. All these are not ends within themselves; they are simply means. The end of all education, whether of head or hand or heart, is to make an individual good, to make him useful, to make him power-ful; is to give him goodness, usefulness and power in order that he may exert a helpful influence upon his fellows.
The great Booker T. Washington offers practical, simple wisdom in these lectures to young people so blessed to be under his tutelage barely one generation removed from slavery. Some of it seemed so rudimentary as I read that were I not privy to what has become of us in this era I would marvel that he bothered to lecture on the subject. It’s timeless.
* I use the word Negro when reviewing works written by black authors of the Harlem Renaissance and earlier generations because that is the word they used. I will most often use the terminology and language of the author. Except for African-American. I will never use that. Black is as far as I am willing to go.