Sabbath School

On the Emancipation of Frederick Douglass by Means of Liberal Education

True wisdom has suggested that the only way to find one’s real self is, paradoxically, to get out of oneself, “to be beside oneself,” as philosopher Josef Pieper phrased it.

Our popular culture promotes the injurious fiction that the world is all about me, myself, and my ephemeral needs, a temptation that American culture has confronted for a long time. But a true liberal arts education can provide an escape from such alienation and loneliness—and boredom. A true liberal education is a way to discover that you are not alone.

As we share great texts and ideas and works of art, our vision and expectations can be enlarged. It does take work, and a peculiar type of courage to admit that there’s a world larger than the self while fear is all about us, but we are meant to be citizens of that larger world. The study of the liberal arts—the kind of study that means examination and not just memorization—can be a foundation or grounding for one’s work, one’s vocation, and really for one’s life in a larger world than oneself.

Take Frederick Douglass, for example. Douglass (1818—1895) escaped from slavery in Maryland in 1838. Seven years later he published the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, the first of several autobiographies.

Of the approximately 120 slave narratives we have, only 16 were actually written by ex-slaves themselves. It was illegal for slaves to learn to read and write in the ante-bellum South (and actually not much easier to learn to do so in the North), and Douglass did not receive anything like a formal education while in slavery, nor did he have the kind of mutually supportive community that is present on our college campuses. Yet he became liberally educated before his escape to the North.

How did he work this apparent educational miracle? He encountered the experiences of others and reflected upon those experiences. His personal experience illustrates that a liberal education, or a liberal arts education, is primarily found through the discovery and the articulation of larger human connections and relationships. He was able to make his way into a larger world, a larger world of discourse, than his own immediate and straitened personal world. He was offered the opportunity, which he seized, to become large-souled and a man of good moral character, and a fellow willing to share his new sense of a larger and more hopeful community.

Douglass’s world, at first, was an isolated rural plantation. He was not at ease, though, because something bothered him, although he could not give voice to what it was. When he was sent to a new owner in Baltimore, he encountered the unexpected kindness of a new mistress who discovered a small boy who was curious and unusually open to learning.

Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, “If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell [45 inches]. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now,” said he, “if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.”

Douglass was instantly engaged. Mr. Auld’s words were as “a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain.” This enforced darkness was the secret to the white man’s power over his slave.

Douglass became all the more eager to learn, and given his comparative “freedom” in Baltimore as opposed to the strictness of the plantation regime, he was able to invent strategies (including providing food for white boys who would help him learn to read) that resulted in his literacy.

One of the books that came his way was Caleb Bingham’s The Columbian Orator: Containing a Variety of Original and Selected Pieces Together with Rules Calculated to Improve Youth and Others in the Ornamental and Useful Art of Eloquence (1797). Collected within its covers were speeches by Socrates, George Washington, Napoleon, and others. Douglass read of the Irish Catholic struggle for emancipation and enjoyed a dialogue between a slave and his master in which the former convinced the latter of his own natural claim to freedom.

What now occurred were the emancipation of Douglass’s moral imagination and the revelation of an enlarged, but hurtful, moral universe: He did not, by nature, have to be a slave! He became convinced that a “contented slave” must be “a thoughtless” slave. The slave owner must

darken his [slave’s] moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible . . . annihilate the power of reason . . . [the slave] must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man.

There was more to Douglass’s liberal education, however. He described the sad decaying of Mrs. Auld’s character as she fell in line with her husband’s directive. Her kindness was replaced with the bitter fruits of slavery: “Under its influence, the tender heart became stone, and the lamblike disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness.” Slavery hurt white as well as black.

But even this was not necessarily the end of the story. Douglass set up a “Sabbath school” in order to teach his fellow slaves. It was dangerous for all involved, but “they were great days to my soul.”

Why did these people risk “thirty-nine lashes”? “They came because they wished to learn. Their minds had been starved by their cruel master. They had been shut up in mental darkness.”

I like to tell my students when we work with the Douglass text that, in a very real way, Frederick Douglass was “free” before his actual escape from slavery in Maryland. What he discovered was that his immediate Maryland world was not normative, and that there was, in fact, a larger moral universe to which he was an heir as a human being.

Thanks to his learning to read and his encounter with this larger world, what had earlier bothered him could now be articulated. He had developed a new vocabulary that allowed him to judge the indecency of his, and his fellows’, situation. He had become . . . liberally educated! The point of such an education is to free oneself of the heavy burden of oneself, to recognize a larger human experience, to get out of oneself in order, again paradoxically, to find oneself.

Our personal worlds can often be far too small, even for ourselves. If, through a false sense of modesty, we cling to a small self, we be can fooled into a false understanding of humility, that great virtue which is actually a large-souled embrace of the needs of others and of the common good. The goal of a true liberal education is to enable students to begin to become complete human beings through engagement in conversations and books and poems and experiments.

It is God’s world—the “Creator’s,” as noted in the Declaration of Independence—but the world of a providential Creator, who has literally entered this world. In itself, such an extraordinary mystery emphasizes that most of what is here in this world is good and worthy of being studied and known. Grace has entered our world, and a daily thanksgiving is merely a matter of justice. This presence of grace itself remains an overwhelming model of charity.

Liberal education is a very large agenda, as is life itself, but Frederick Douglass’s achievement of a genuinely liberal education is at once a celebration of the true human—and graced—spirit and an example of what can happen when one embraces education “for nothing.” It is a true emancipation. •

From Salvo 9 (Summer 2009)
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This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #9, Summer 2009 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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