Tuskegee was a little town in Alabama, USA, when Booker T Washington was invited to establish there a school for the coloured people of the state in the year 1881, 16 years after the Emancipation of the Negroes. The Tuskegee Institute became famous for the holistic education it provided to the coloured students. Washington did not provide mere bookish learning; he taught the students one trade or another so that they could earn their living as soon as they left the school. Mere earning of livelihood was not Washington’s objective, however. Education is “any kind of training... that gives strength and culture to the mind,” says Washington in his autobiography, Up from Slavery (prescribed as an optional supplementary reader by CBSE for class XII).
Washington’s book is a heart-touching expression of a profound philosophy which seeks to discover the good in every individual and cultivate it irrespective of race or religion. There is a passage in the book which eloquently shows how to run a school or any institution for the welfare of all its members. I wish to quote the entire passage.
“From the first I have sought to impress the students with the idea that Tuskegee is not my institution, or that of the officers, but that it is their institution, and they have as much interest in it as any of the trustees or instructors. I have further sought to have them feel that I am at the institution as their friend and adviser, and not as their overseer. It has been my aim to have them speak with directness and frankness about anything that concerns the life of the school. Two or three times a year I ask the students to write me a letter criticising or making complaints or suggestions about anything connected with the institution. When this is not done, I have them meet me in the chapel for a heart-to-heart talk about the conduct of the school. There are no meetings with our students that I enjoy more than these, and none are more helpful to me in planning for the future. These meetings, it seems to me, enable me to get at the very heart of all that concerns the school. Few things help an individual more than to place responsibility upon him, and to let him know that you trust him. When I have heard of labour troubles between employers and employees, I have often thought that many strikes and similar disturbances might be avoided if the employers would cultivate the habit of getting nearer to their employees, of consulting and advising with them, and letting them feel that the interests of the two are the same. Every individual responds to confidence.... Let them once understand that you are unselfishly interested in them, and you can lead them to any extent.” [Emphasis added throughout]
Booker T Washington was born in a family of slaves. He struggled to get education. He did not learn any management lessons from any business school. He had a vision: to bring back nobility to the lives of the American Negroes who had been enslaved for centuries. He materialised that vision with the help of simple tools, the tools are mentioned in the passage quoted above.
I hope that not only the English teachers and students of class XII will read this book, but also the people who run schools. [Most English teachers and students concerned won’t read it in all probability because the other option given by CBSE is Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. I too opted for the latter in my school for obvious reasons.]
Up from Slavery can inspire the reader from the beginning to the end. Let me conclude this piece with another quote from the book:
“Now, whenever I hear any one advocating measures that are meant to curtail the development of another, I pity the individual who would do this. I know that the one who makes this mistake does so because of his own lack of opportunity for the highest kind of growth. I pity him because I know that he is trying to stop the progress of the world, and because I know that in time the development and the ceaseless advance of humanity will make him ashamed of his weak and narrow position.”