Ever since I received the invitation to speak here, I’ve been looking at education in the 21st century through the 19th century, yet timeless, eyes of Frederick Douglass.
We can never know exactly what Frederick Douglass would have thought about education today. But I hope you won’t mind that I take a few guesses. I’ve divided my talk into two parts. First, what we can learn today from what Frederick Douglass did and said when he was faced with tough circumstances. Second, I want to guess about some of the things that Douglass would say directly to parents today. My main conclusion is that Frederick Douglass would have tried to improve the public school system, but also that he would have been quite content to fight or abandon it.
So let me start by spending a few minutes talking about how Frederick Douglass personally responded to tough circumstances. He was very human in that regard. Throughout human history there have been two ways that people have responded to a crisis. Fight or flee. Douglass did both. He did try to fight back against slavery. He did his best to resist the beatings. He never struck back with his fists, but he was proud that he drew blood from the slave-breaker Covey. He learned the lesson: “He was whipped oftener who was whipped easiest.” The slaves who had the courage to stand up against the overseers might get punished at first, but, “while legally a slave virtually a freeman.” Such slaves, Douglass noted, were “neither whipped nor shot.”
Douglass did try what was possible to make the situation better for himself, recognizing the limitations. As he wrote, “A man’s troubles are always half disposed of when he finds endurance the only alternative. I found myself here; there was no getting away; and naught remained for me but to make the best of it.”
That leads me to conclude that Douglass would have told parents to fight within the system. But I believe he also would have said: Don’t be a damned fool about it. Douglass fought so he could flee, to increase opportunities for himself. He learned to read, despite the odds. Before he knew how to escape, he was planning. He learned to write to free himself: “I wished to learn to write before going, as I might have occasion to write my own pass.”
Things weren’t working, so he looked for an exit. That exit was on a ship disguised as a sailor. He ran from slavery, he ran to England with the slave-catchers in hot pursuit, he ran to Canada after John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry with law enforcement in even hotter pursuit. When necessary, Frederick Douglass ran as far as his legs and brain would carry him. That doesn’t seem like a hero’s tactics, to run. But, under the circumstances, it was bravery and necessity. If he had failed a second time, he certainly would have been sent down to the Deep South or shot on sight.
I hope I’ve made the case that Douglass tried to change the system from within, but that he also believed, through his words as well as his actions, that he was willing to run to other opportunities.
Second, what would Douglass tell parents today, especially those with children in bad schools? I believe Douglass would start by saying something from Lord Byron that he often quoted: “Hereditary bondmen, know ye not, Who would be free, themselves must strike the blow?”
1) To those who choose to stay and fight, I believe that Douglass would have said two things: No excuses. Take advantage of every opportunity. Don’t use obstacles as an excuse. Don’t blame racism or mean teachers.
What else could he tell parents? Douglass learned to read in the 1830s. He never attended formal school. He never attended a public school. Some people think that is right-wing propaganda, but it is true. He was, it was said at the time by one of his friends, “a graduate of slavery, with his diploma on his back.”
He was home-schooled for a time by his master’s wife and street-schooled by his white friends. He would challenge the white children to academic competitions by saying that he could write or spell better than they could. He was looking to take advantage of every opportunity. In one passage, Douglass writes: “I have gathered scattered pages of the Bible from the filthy street-gutters, and washed and dried them, that in moments of leisure I might get a word or two of wisdom from them.”
Today, people complain about old textbooks. There’s no book older than the Bible. If you’re reading about the Civil War, you don’t need the 2003 explanation. Today, 37 percent of D.C. residents above the age of 25 read at the 3rd grade level or below. And yet we have people walking by public libraries that are free and open to everyone. Some people say that class size explains why kids are struggling—and yet, Douglass talked about his experience teaching 40 slaves, in a barn, in secret, how to read. No certified teacher, no computers, no air conditioning, and no excuses.
2) If you choose to exit: Don’t wait for an educational emancipation proclamation. If necessary, run. Sometimes people will say that people who support school choice are “giving up” on public education. But there is a difference between running from something and running to something. Some people may be running from bad schools, others may be running to educational opportunities. Douglass later told his former owner, “I did not run away from you, but from slavery; it was not that I loved Caesar less, but Rome more.”
If it isn’t working for you, you have two choices: fight or flee. A few months ago, I was invited by a D.C. public school teacher to give a talk to his students. He wanted me to explain to the students how I had gone from Texas, to Harvard, to Taiwan, to Korea, and finally to the Cato Institute where I work as an education policy analyst. One topic he suggested: “Stay in school.” My question: “Which school?” A school with bars, metal detectors, 650 SAT scores, crime, 50 percent dropout rates? Why would I say, “Stay there”? And a parent shouldn’t feel obligated to stay there.
Forge papers; set up a P.O. Box at Mailboxes, Etc. Any way you can get your child into a better school, do it. That may sound radical. But then, Douglass risked his own life by aiding runaway slaves as part of the Underground Railroad. Opponents eager to convict him “of being Frederick Douglass” would have celebrated the chance to punish him for breaking the law. I doubt that he would have told parents to put the interests of administrators before those of their children. I don’t believe people hate public schools. Instead, the focus should be on increasing choices for parents.
3) Finally, to all parents, I believe he would say that whatever you do: Tell your story. The story of what’s going on in the schools must be told from the view of the parents and the children. In the introduction to Douglass’ narrative published in 1845, abolitionist Wendell Phillips wrote: “You remember the old fable of `The Man and the Lion,’ where the lion complained that he should not be so misrepresented ‘when the lions write history.’ I am glad the time has come when the ‘lions write history.’” Douglass’ story was the other side. Douglass wrote: “Viewed from his table, and not from the field, Colonel Lloyd was, indeed, a model of generous hospitality. But that the view from the fields was different.” It’s the same with education today. The discussions make children secondary. Just think about the questions that people ask: “Will the school system lose money?” “Will the schools be drained?” “Are we giving up on public education?
I believe Douglass would ask today: Do the kids lose when they have choice? That may have been a tad pragmatic and Douglass was also a visionary, constantly considering questions of freedom. In that case, I believe he would also be asking, “Does school choice increase educational freedom?”
The second question might have been more interesting for him. He was asked, for example, what would happen to slaves if they were given freedom. After all, many of them were illiterate, robbed of their savings, and dependent on their masters. Douglass’ response was an 1862 speech: Free the slaves, and then leave them alone. He said that if we can’t stand on our own feet, then let us fall. Freedom was more important than pragmatism or efficiency.
Finally, what would Douglass say about vouchers for D.C.? I believe that, overall, he would have liked them. One reason is a quote I came across in which Douglass discussed his personal experience as a conductor on the Underground Railroad.
“True as a means of destroying slavery, it was like an attempt to bail out the ocean with a teaspoon, but the thought that there was one less slave, and one more freeman — having myself been a slave, and a fugitive slave — brought to my heart unspeakable joy.”
When people say that school choice will save only a handful — that not everyone will fit in the boat — I believe that Douglass would have said: 2,000 kids being freed? That sounds like a great start. Parents, save yourselves and your children, and take advantage of the opportunities that have been presented to you.