This is the essay for lesson 61-65 in the Autobiographies course from the Ronpaul curriculum. In this blog post, I will be covering the question of: Was Washington’s program for gaining social acceptance for blacks an elitist program?
In the autobiography Up From Slavery, Booker T. Washington sets up a school for blacks to raise their social standing. Most blacks believed the way to raise their social standing, was to learn intellectual topics that were difficult. Washington, however, thought that this was the wrong way to raise your social standing. He believed that the complete opposite should be done. Washington taught at his school practical things, like keeping everything clean. Most importantly he taught manual labor, like building buildings and growing crops. Most blacks felt like this is what they had been doing while they were in slavery and that they needed to learn intellectual subjects instead. Washington had a reason for why he taught what he taught, however.
Washington’s reason was that there few jobs that required knowledge in intellectual subjects and many that required knowledge in manual labor fields. Washington believed in the free market. That, if his students started filling these manual labor roles, they would improve their social standing greatly and also make money. When Washington’s school was selling leftover bricks from building their own buildings, people would buy these bricks and respect the school and its students. Washington also believed that after the blacks had established themselves in these manual labor fields, they could expand to more complex fields later, when there were more jobs that required knowledge in intellectual subjects.
Some people might see this program as an elitist program. Let’s see why some people think this is the case and why I don’t. Let’s first look at the official definition of Elitism from the Wikipedia article on Elitism. On Wikipedia it says “Elitism is a belief or attitude that individuals who form an elite—a select group of people with an intrinsic quality, high intellect, wealth, special skills, or experience—are more likely to be constructive to society as a whole, and therefore deserve influence or authority greater than that of others.”
Let’s examine the claim that Washington’s program is elitist because it believes that it’s students that have special skills are more likely to benefit society. The program does believe this, but because of the free-market. The way the free-market works is that it supports people who create a good or service that there is a demand for. In the case of this program, the services that are demanded are services that require manual labor. The second claim is that the program is elitist because it believes that the students who benefit society, deserve authority. This is false, but there is a reason why some people believe this to be true. The program never says that the students who benefit society, deserve more authority. What does happen, however, is that the students who benefit society, do gain more authority. The reason that these students gain more authority is because of the free-market system. How it works is that scarce resources are allocated away from the businesses that hurt society and towards the businesses that benefit society. These businesses grow larger and thus gain more authority. In this case, the students benefit society, their businesses grow larger and they gain more authority. As you can see, Washington’s program is not elitist but merely promotes the free-market.