There has been a lot of chat about W.E.B. Du Bois at Shimer lately. His work appears in our courses. And, yet, how and whether we actually read that work has been the matter of some very interesting discussion. And, since today is Martin Luther King Day, focusing on Du Bois' work seems a reasonable idea.
So, I feel obliged to ask: was Du Bois a Shimerian?
Somehow I seem to lean toward yes each time I ask whether someone counts as a Shimerian on this blog. The reason lies in my belief in Shimer as an inclusive community and campus. Shimer has a way of talking about itself as being located somewhere between reality and utopia. Yes, we fail. Yes, we aspire. And, we aspire to be an inclusive community -- in a variety of ways. I believe in that aspiration and in the ongoing effort to make it more and more true.
Du Bois matters to all this -- as short hand for our successes -- we have included him in our courses -- and our continuing aspirations -- the recently raised question of how we respond to him in classrooms and beyond. This short hands a whole range of issues, and consolidates it on to Du Bois, of course. Here the tension is that he stands for the specific issue of inclusion -- and for our failure to do so -- and for the tension between the particular and the universal (or more).
Given this, how can we even address the question of whether Du Bois is a Shimerian, you ask? Obviously he is -- he is included. And yet. . .
There is much that persuades me that Du Bois is a Shimerian, but here I am going to limit my remarks to his essay "A Negro Student at Harvard at the End of the Nineteenth Century." That essay teaches us a lot -- about his views of education, about Harvard, and about the tension between aspiration and attainment. The essay is not irrelevant, either, to much discussion today within African American communities and beyond about the value of HBCUs and the challenge of PWIs. (The first acronym means historically black colleges and universities; the second, predominantly white institutions.) The essay is also relevant to any understanding of the role of privilege in education historically and in the 21st century. (And, by the way, makes a very interesting read alongside a book entitled Ebony and Ivy.)
In the essay, Du Bois comments about the teachers he had, the issue of housing (aka his housing choices), about his acceptance of racial segregation, his desire for freedom of laboratory and library, and much more. We learn of his encounters with William James, his reading of Kant, and why he emerges form Harvard knowing many of his "colored" peers but few of his white peers. As he discusses it, Du Bois' intellectual adventures are linked, throughout, to descriptions of what his views were and are on being a Negro in the situation of Harvard in his day. Reading it reminds us all that reading of philosophy -- and all experiencing of classrooms as well as the rest of what college is or can be -- has a complex relationship to who one is, both as an individual and as a person within categories within an era.
It is in his elaboration of the very details of his particular experience of Harvard (also a very particular place) in a very particular time period (the end of the 19th century), that the broadest point emerges, one that contributes to knowing Du Bois as Shimerian: his reading, his intellectual life, are neither limited by or defined by his particular experiences as "Negro." Nor are his reading or his intellectual work separable from that reality.
In this, the life of the Negro at Harvard in the 19th century is a Shimerian life -- of aspiration and limitation -- and so very much more. The both/and of the particular and the universal reminds us that how we read and philosophize and educate today are themselves limited by time, place and person. And, that very same both/and reminds us that how we read, philosophize and educate are enriched, as well, by our embedddedness in time, place and person.
By the way, if you think all this not relevant to today, click here for a piece from Huffington Post on liberal education, Du Bois, and Carver from Michael Roth of Wesleyan University.
And then ask yourself: Was Martin Luther King a Shimerian? What might his piece entitled a the letter from a Birmingham jail (available here) tell us about that?