Character Building

booker-t-washington-reputationIn 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.

Grade: A

* 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.

Dumbing Us Down

dumbing us downDumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, by John Taylor Gatto. Originally Published in 1991.

I first read this 3 years ago, as a new homeschooling parent. It was highly instrumental in helping me over the hump at the beginning. Homeschooling was such a slog (still is on occasion) and it was helpful to be reminded of why even contemplation of returning to the school system was a bad idea.

We aren’t the slightest bit tempted to return to the public system, but I recently re-read it. This is one of those books I’ll probably return to every few years on this homeschooling journey.

What better person to expose the hidden dangers, problems, and agendas of institutional schooling than someone who spent nearly three decades teaching in it while winning multiple state teaching awards for the effort?

John Taylor Gatto’s book systematically dissects and distinguishes what we think our schools are there to teach from what it is they actually teach. One of the most jarring chapters is at the very beginning where he outlines the seven lessons that every school teacher teaches:

A lady named Kathy wrote this to me from Dubois, Indiana the other day:

“What big ideas are important to little kids? Well, the biggest idea I think they need is that what they are learning isn’t idiosyncratic — that this is some system to it all and it’s not just raining down on them as they helplessly absorb. That’s the task, to understand, to make coherent.”

Kathy has it wrong. The first lesson I teach is confusion.

Everything I teach is out of context… I teach the unrelating of everything. I teach disconnections. I teach too much: the orbiting of planets, the law of large numbers, slavery, adjectives, architectural drawing, dance, gymnasium, choral singing, assemblies, surprise guests, fire drills, computer languages, parent’s nights, staff-development days, pull-out programs, guidance with strangers you may never see again, standardized tests, age-segregation unlike anything seen in the outside world… what do any of these things have to do with each other?

He goes on further into the seven lessons:

The fifth lesson I teach is intellectual dependency.

Good people wait for a teacher to tell them what to do. It is the most important lesson, that we must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meanings of our lives. The expert makes all the important choices; only I can determine what you must study, or rather, only the people who pay me can make those decisions which I enforce. If I’m told that evolution is fact instead of a theory I transmit that as ordered, punishing deviants who resist what I have been paid to tell them to think.

This power to control what children will think lets me separate successful students from failures very easily. Successful children do the thinking I appoint them with a minimum of resistance and a decent show of enthusiasm. Of the millions of things of value to study, I decide what few we have time for, or it is decided by my faceless employer. The choices are his, why should I argue? Curiosity has no important place in my work, only conformity.

You can find the total exposition of the seven lessons here, and if those of you who like me graduated the public school system, read them and find that you vehemently disagree, please let me know. I’m interested because I think Mr. Gatto does a masterful job of transmitting in layman’s terms what it is about traditional public schooling that children (and many parents) find so disconcerting but which we can’t quite put our finger on.

Rather than simply diagnose the problem, Gatto offers solutions, with the caveat that is obvious to even the passive observer by now. The school system is first and foremost a jobs program more interested in securing the jobs of the grownups over the interests and education of the children. As such, it cannot truly be reformed and the only way to salvage even a bit of real education for your children, you must rescue them from it. He offers the solutions nonetheless:

Independent study, community service, adventures and experience, large doses of privacy and solitude, a thousand different apprenticeships — the one-day variety or longer — these are all powerful, cheap, and effective ways to start a real reform of schooling. But no large-scale reform is ever going to work to repair our damaged children and our damaged society until we force open the idea of “school” to include family as the main engine of education. If we use schooling to break children away from parents — and make no mistake, that has been the central function of schools since John Cotton announced it as the purpose of the Bay Colony schools in 1650 and Horace Mann announced it as the purpose of Massachusetts schools in 1850 — we’re going to continue to have the horror show we have right now.

There’s a lot that I could say in support of this book with the hope that those of you who are parents will read it. Trust me when I say it is an excellent book, because it is.  I’ll close this one out with a quote from the book which sums up well the nature of a true education:

Whatever an education is, it should make you a unique individual, not a conformist; it should furnish you with an original spirit with which to tackle the big challenges; it should allow you to find values which will be your road map through life; it should make you spiritually rich, a person who loves whatever you are doing, wherever you are, whomever you are with; it should teach you what is important, how to live and how to die.

Grade: A

Lifestyle Books: Or Why I Mostly Stopped Reading Them

Lifestyle books are huge sellers in America. Expert and credential obsession is as American as apple pie.  Barnes and Noble is filled on any given Saturday with patrons looking for the latest trendy formula for how to be happy, how to find love, how to simplify, or even something as mundane as how to keep a clean house. I read my share as a young wife and mother.

The only ones I have found of any use at all are books full of recipes, preferably with nerdy food details included. We are a cooking clan in a world where few women -particularly young ones- can cook. So cookbooks are a handy thing to have on hand. Oh yes, and sewing books, although I’m not certain if those qualify as lifestyle books.

However, I did have a couple of lifestyle/how to books in my current reading rotation and two of the three served to remind me why I largely dismiss lifestyle books. Let’s review them.

take back your lifeTake back your life: My No Nonsense Approach to Health, Fitness, and Looking Good Naked! By Wendy Ida, published in 2011.

I actually paid for this rather than borrow it from the library, something I almost never do. I did that because I have a soft spot for sisters who take the time and put in the effort to help other black women get healthy and into shape. Black women are known to age extremely well, wrinkling a full decade, usually more, behind other women. Sadly American black women are notoriously poor stewards of that gift with 80% of us being over weight or obese. It’s one of those things where you put your money where your mouth is and so I did just that. I figured supporting Mrs. Ida in her quest to help rein in the problem was worth $11.94.

I was wrong. The book is full of psychobabble, scattered with useless little helps she labels “sexercises”, and generally void of anything you can’t find anywhere else for free, not to mention presented far better. “You go girl” was the cord running all the way through it rather than a wisdom and stewardship based focus for being healthy and vital. Practical, useful information was scant, or unoriginal when it was presented.  I couldn’t even finish it.

Grade: D

crows feet laugh linesLet the Crow’s Feet and the Laugh Lines Come, by Dena Dyer, published 2011. I bought this one too, albeit for only .50 at a used book sale courtesy of my local library.

This book is a Christian attempt to encourage believing women to reject the world’s reduction of their worth to nothing more than their youth and beauty or the fading thereof. Not a bad message, and at 44, one that I can embrace wholeheartedly.

There really is some good stuff in this book, and I tried to focus on those things rather than get caught up in my tendency toward literary snobbery. Both the writing and structure leave a lot to be desired. It might just be that this is the nature of the lifestyle book, and something that can’t really be helped. This isn’t prose after all. But still.

The author takes pains to provide balance, reminding women that there are things we can do to be responsible stewards of our health as we age. There was no free pass given based simply on the fact that we’re aging.

The biggest problem I had with this book was the ripping of Scripture out of its context to fit it into a narrative unique to the struggles of individuals or women in particular. I tend to instinctively recoil at that for a host of reasons but the overall message of the book was sound.

Grade: C

Content advisory: Nothing offensive in either book. Wendy Ida offers the occasional tips for improving libido and sexual experience for women but nothing to clutch your pearls over.

Real Music Interlude

Reading is slow going at present, but music is always playing. There was a hymn referenced in the book Their Eyes Were Watching God. It was one that we sang in church growing up and the tune has been stuck in my head for the last two weeks. It’s a very simple song:

Walk in the light, beautiful light

Come where the dew drops of mercy shine bright

Shine all around us by day and by night

Jesus, the Light of the world

I thought I’d share it:

And what’s a Friday without some jazz? Nearly two decades ago my husband (who loved himself some rap music, I might add) introduced me to Miles Davis’ album recorded in 1959, Kind of Blue. Like I said, this is real music. I hope all 3 of you enjoy it, and have a great weekend!