Feb 232017
 

Today is the birthday (1868) of William Edward Burghardt “W. E. B.” Du Bois, U.S. sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, author, and editor. Now is an excellent time to champion Du Bois because of his brief return to the spotlight when Trump’s new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, who is about as nakedly ignorant and ambitious as they come, tried to win points by quoting Du Bois in a tweet, but then misspelled his name. DeVos joins a long line of bigots who think that by quoting an eminent and respected African American they are cleared of all accusations of racism and bias.  Sorry – it doesn’t work that way.  What’s more DeVos most certainly does not subscribe to what Du Bois had to say, even though she quoted him:

Education must not simply teach work – it must teach life.

DeVos, along with numerous colleagues on the far right, right, center, and slightly left of center all hold up education as the path to jobs and financial success, and hold schools accountable by such criteria.  To the best of my knowledge, no one in politics thinks education is of much value (as seen by constant cuts to education and threats to the whole involvement of the government in education at all), and when they do value it it’s because of its ability to turn out skilled workers, not for its intrinsic merits.  I am a rare bird these days because no matter what the subject matter, my underlying agenda is to teach students to think for themselves, and in the process to pursue truth, beauty, and happiness. I TEACH LIFE.

Du Bois was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts and grew up in a relatively tolerant and integrated community. After completing graduate work at the University of Berlin and Harvard, where he was the first African-American to earn a doctorate, he became a professor of history, sociology and economics at Atlanta University. Du Bois was one of the co-founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.

Du Bois rose to national prominence as the leader of the Niagara Movement, a group of African-American activists who wanted equal rights for Blacks. Du Bois and his supporters opposed the Atlanta compromise, an agreement crafted by Booker T. Washington which proposed that Southern Blacks would work and submit to White political rule, while Southern Whites guaranteed that Blacks would receive basic educational and economic opportunities. Instead, Du Bois insisted on full civil rights and increased political representation, which he believed would be brought about by the African-American intellectual elite. He referred to this group as the Talented Tenth and believed that African Americans needed the chances for advanced education to develop leadership skills.

Racism was the main target of Du Bois’s polemics, and he strongly protested against lynching, Jim Crow laws, and discrimination in education and employment. His cause included people of color everywhere, particularly Africans and Asians in colonies. He was a proponent of Pan-Africanism and helped organize several Pan-African Congresses to fight for independence of African colonies from European powers. Du Bois made several trips to Europe, Africa and Asia. After World War I, he surveyed the experiences of Black American soldiers in France and documented widespread bigotry in the United States military.

Du Bois was a prolific author. His collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk, was a seminal work in African-American literature; and his 1935 magnum opus Black Reconstruction in America challenged the prevailing orthodoxy that Blacks were responsible for the failure