The Wings of Atalanta

Betsy DeVos took a lot of shit for shoehorning her school choice agenda into a released statement praising HBCUs:

A key priority for this administration is to help develop opportunities for communities that are often the most underserved. Rather than focus solely on funding, we must be willing to make the tangible, structural reforms that will allow students to reach their full potential.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have done this since their founding. They started from the fact that there were too many students in America who did not have equal access to education. They saw that the system wasn’t working, that there was an absence of opportunity, so they took it upon themselves to provide the solution.

HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice. They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality. Their success has shown that more options help students flourish.

Their counsel and guidance will be crucial in addressing the current inequities we face in education. I look forward to working with the White House to elevate the role of HBCUs in this administration and to solve the problems we face in education today.

To be fair, in Devos’s spoken remarks at this week’s DC event for HBCUs, she adds a lot more historical nuance, and states“your history was born, not out of mere choice, but out of necessity, in the face of racism.”

In any case, this reaction from the Washington Post is pretty much just wrong:

But the statement did not delve into the historical context behind the creation of HBCUs: that they were a response to racist Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation in the South.

Her Monday evening statement drew immediate backlash on social media. Tweets poked fun of her characterization of HBCUs as about school choice— “as if white/colored water fountains were about beverage options” and comparing the Montgomery bus boycott to “pioneering new scenic walking paths.

Marybeth Gasman, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Minority-Serving Institutions, accused DeVos of whitewashing HBCU history in a Twitter post:

Some might argue that the University of Pennsylvania, a huge institution with billions of dollars of endowment that attracts a largely rich, high-performing student body, might not have interests fully in line with financially struggling small colleges and universities serving more low-income, struggling students.  But more to the point: A large percentage (in some states, a majority) of HBCUs were founded during the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, with the help of the Freedmen’s Bureau, during the period of Union occupation of the defeated South,before Jim Crow.  I’ve made the point before that calling HBCUs the “legacy of Jim Crow” makes less sense than calling them the “legacy of Radical Reconstruction.” The direct antecedents of the creation of HBCUs aren’t some dark secret in the country’s past, but hundreds of thousands of men dying that the nation could remake itself without one seventh of its population in bondage. The reaction to DeVos’s remarks seem to me part of a more general pattern where the actual political and military struggle over slavery and reconstruction is overlooked in favor of a simpler, gray and undifferentiated narrative of unending and unopposed white supremacy.

As Frederick Douglass wrote in 1862, after the war was over,

Schools for the education of dusky millions will be required, and all the elevating and civilizing institutions of the country must be extended to these people. Men full of faith in the race, and of the sacred fire of love, must walk among these slavery-smitten columns of humanity and lift their forms towards Heaven. Verily, the work does not end with the abolition of slavery but only begins. Slavery has been the great hindrance. It has stood athwart the pathway of knowledge and progress, dreading nothing so much as the enlightenment of its slaves.

W.E.B. DuBois, who elsewhere butted heads with Booker T. Washington in large part over the correct set of goals for black education, writes extensively about the work of the Freedmen’s Bureau and the Reconstruction-era founding of colleges and schools for freed Southern blacks in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), as well as making this encomium to the work of HBCUs in the New South:

The hundred hills of Atlanta are not all crowned with factories. On one, toward the west, the setting sun throws three buildings in bold relief against the sky. The beauty of the group lies in its simple unity:—a broad lawn of green rising from the red street and mingled roses and peaches; north and south, two plain and stately halls; and in the midst, half hidden in ivy, a larger building, boldly graceful, sparingly decorated, and with one low spire. It is a restful group, —one never looks for more; it is all here, all intelligible. There I live, and there I hear from day to day the low hum of restful life. In winter’s twilight, when the red sun glows, I can see the dark figures pass between the halls to the music of the night-bell. In the morning, when the sun is golden, the clang of the day-bell brings the hurry and laughter of three hundred young hearts from hall and street, and from the busy city below,—children all dark and heavy-haired,—to join their clear young voices in the music of the morning sacrifice. In a half-dozen class-rooms they gather then,—here to follow the love-song of Dido, here to listen to the tale of Troy divine; there to wander among the stars, there to wander among men and nations,—and elsewhere other well-worn ways of knowing this queer world. Nothing new, no time-saving devices,—simply old time-glorified methods of delving for Truth, and searching out the hidden beauties of life, and learning the good of living. The riddle of existence is the college curriculum that was laid before the Pharaohs, that was taught in the groves by Plato, that formed the trivium and quadrivium, and is to-day laid before the freedmen’s sons by Atlanta University. And this course of study will not change; its methods will grow more deft and effectual, its content richer by toil of scholar and sight of seer; but the true college will ever have one goal,—not to earn meat, but to know the end and aim of that life which meat nourishes.

The vision of life that rises before these dark eyes has in it nothing mean or selfish. Not at Oxford or at Leipsic, not at Yale or Columbia, is there an air of higher resolve or more unfettered striving; the determination to realize for men, both black and white, the broadest possibilities of life, to seek the better and the best, to spread with their own hands the Gospel of Sacrifice,—all this is the burden of their talk and dream. Here, amid a wide desert of caste and proscription, amid the heart-hurting slights and jars and vagaries of a deep race-dislike, lies this green oasis, where hot anger cools, and the bitterness of disappointment is sweetened by the springs and breezes of Parnassus; and here men may lie and listen, and learn of a future fuller than the past, and hear the voice of Time:

“Entbehren sollst du, sollst entbehren.”

They made their mistakes, those who planted Fisk and Howard and Atlanta before the smoke of battle had lifted; they made their mistakes, but those mistakes were not the things at which we lately laughed somewhat uproariously. They were right when they sought to found a new educational system upon the University: where, forsooth, shall we ground knowledge save on the broadest and deepest knowledge? The roots of the tree, rather than the leaves, are the sources of its life; and from the dawn of history, from Academus to Cambridge, the culture of the University has been the broad foundation-stone on which is built the kindergarten’s A B C.

The Wings of Atalanta are the coming universities of the South. They alone can bear the maiden past the temptation of golden fruit. They will not guide her flying feet away from the cotton and gold; for—ah, thoughtful Hippomenes!—do not the apples lie in the very Way of Life? But they will guide her over and beyond them, and leave her kneeling in the Sanctuary of Truth and Freedom and broad Humanity, virgin and undefiled. And if this is the white South’s need and danger, how much heavier the danger and need of the freedmen’s sons! how pressing here the need of broad ideals and true culture, the conservation of soul from sordid aims and petty passions! Let us build the Southern university—William and Mary, Trinity, Georgia, Texas, Tulane, Vanderbilt, and the others—fit to live; let us build, too, the Negro universities:—Fisk, whose foundation was ever broad; Howard, at the heart of the Nation; Atlanta at Atlanta, whose ideal of scholarship has been held above the temptation of numbers. Why not here, and perhaps elsewhere, plant deeply and for all time centres of learning and living, colleges that yearly would send into the life of the South a few white men and a few black men of broad culture, catholic tolerance, and trained ability, joining their hands to other hands, and giving to this squabble of the Races a decent and dignified peace?

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