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    A Remedy for American Education: Applying Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave


Who can be blamed for the low performance of students? Surely we can blame a host of possible culprits, including teachers, parents, and governments; but does finger pointing solve anything? While the need for manual labor has diminished in America, the demand for “thought” oriented jobs has never been greater, leading some American companies to outsource their employment to foreign countries. This outsourcing  propensity is not due to foreigners being intrinsically smarter than Americans, but rather due to the poor quality of American education. Education was of the utmost importance during the Cold War, but now it has merely become a side issue. Education must once again be brought to the forefront of debate! However, if we want to change the future, we must first look back to the past. In particular, we can learn from the example of Frederick Douglass, a self educated slave, who escaped from slavery to freedom. Despite living in a different time period, Douglass can only serve to inspire a remedy to America’s problem of mental slavery. Through the use of precise words in his more general framework of dichotomy, Douglass offers a timeless solution to slavery.

The dichotomy of education and ignorance is encountered in paragraph three, when Mr. Auld first discovers that his wife has been teaching one of his slaves how to read. Auld immediately reprimands her for teaching “that nigger ... how to read” (266)1. Moreover, Auld’s use of language is of worthy note. In particular, his pervasive use of the word “nigger” must be questioned: 

If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. 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. (266)


 The question arises: Is Master Auld using the word “nigger” in a derogatory manner, or is he using the word as just another way to refer to a slave? The meaning of the word nigger has certainly evolved over time, and is a subject better left to linguists, but perhaps the appropriate connotation can be inferred from the context. In a fit of rage, Mr. Auld loses his temper, and pontificates to his wife, without even realizing his own ungentlemanly-like conduct. Douglass purposefully included Auld’s unflagging use of “nigger”, to show the degree to which the words nigger and slave are interchangeable. To Auld, a slave must be black, and a black person must be a slave. This sort of logic breaks down outside of a slave society, since a black person outside of the American South is not necessarily a slave.

Auld’s narrow-mindedness is again salient when he says “Learning would spoil” (266). Even though Auld expresses himself through speech, he clearly structures his sentence awkwardly using the word “learning” instead of “education” or “literacy”. By using period colloquialism, rather than standard English, Auld reveals his own paucity of education. Despite clearly having some degree of education, Auld makes himself an incongruity through his own speech, which is only natural in his position as a slave-holder.

Mr. Auld affirms the slaveholding sentiment that slaves are just a commodity when he says that “learning would spoil the best nigger in the world” (266). The usage of the word spoil in italics is of particular importance since it depends entirely on the circumstances within the context. In this case, spoil applies to the “best nigger in the world”, which can only mean one thing in the eyes of a slave-owner – that the “best” slaves are comparable not even to living animals, but to perishable food such as meat and vegetables! This distinction is quite astounding, which is exactly why Douglass put the world spoil in italics. It is also no mistake that when the adjective vegetable is applied to a human, the implication is that the human is neither capable of deep thought, nor capable of any kind of thought. This sort of passivity and ignorance is exactly what keeps slaves in an oppressed state of servitude.

Mr. Auld serves to further the dichotomy between education and ignorance with his portentous words, “If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell” (266). As a unit of distance, an inch represents a very small quantity, whereas an ell, which is about a yard, represents a much larger quantity. This dichotomy between small and big acts not only to amplify the disparity between education and ignorance, but also to give a scale of how quickly and easily a slave can go from nearly ignorant to knowledgeable. Douglass is a living example of this dichotomous truth, as he later remarks in paragraph eight, “Mistress, in teaching me the alphabet, had given me the inch, and no precaution could prevent me from taking the ell” (269). Thus, slave owners must do everything in their power to prevent slaves from acquiring even the smallest bit of education - the inch. What would actually happen to a slave who acquires an ell of education? According to master Auld, education “could do [a slave] no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy” (266).  On one hand, the slave will be truly free in the mind, but on the other hand, the slave will remain enslaved in the physical sense of body.

After hearing his master’s words, Douglass has a “new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things” (266). The usage of the word “revelation” is insightful in itself, for religiously, revelation is a way that a divine being bestows knowledge upon humans. If God has decided to bestow this revelation upon Frederick, then in the eyes of God, slaves cannot be inferior to whites. If slavery is not justifiable by divine right, and if it is not preordained in a fatalistic sense, then slavery is just an artificial social construct. In this fashion, Auld’s depravity makes him a perpetuator of slavery.

Douglass also uses antithesis of particular words to further the extent of Auld’s moral corruption: “Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master” (266). Mrs. Auld had acted ethically in teaching Douglass how to read, thus Douglass is sad to lose the morality of his kind mistress, yet glad to gain the inadvertent insight that his master imparted. Interestingly, to complete the parallel structure of a kind mistress, there should be the adjective modifying the master as mean. This omission lends an even more emphatic power to the sentence, for not only does it show Douglass’ compassion in not explicitly describing his master as mean, but it also shows Douglass’ cunning. By omitting the word mean, Douglass elevates himself to a higher ethical plane than his master operates on, and consequently brings special attention to this moral gap. In a similar fashion, Douglass shows Auld’s turpitude with another sentence containing antithesis: “What he most dreaded, that I most desired. What he most loved, that I most hated. That which to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunned, was to me a great good, to be diligently sought” (267). Whatever Auld dreaded, Douglass desired; whatever Auld loved, Douglass hated; whatever Auld believed was a great evil, Douglass believed was a great good. Essentially, Douglass highlights two opposite ideas that are connected in parallelism, and forces the situation into a moral matter. Naturally, Douglass holds the moral compass, as he is in the oppressed situation, but the reader must make the moral choice of whose side to take, the oppressors or the oppressed. This choice, however, is not difficult when the morality of the slaveholder dictates that a “nigger should know nothing but to obey his master – to do as he is told to do.” (266). By taking away the free will of slaves, slave owners manage to establish complete subjugation.

How can the final frontier between freedom and slavery be crossed? Douglass suggests a “pathway to freedom”, but in a society in which utilitarian laws permit slavery, the oppressor must do everything possible to keep his privileged position. Thus, when a slave becomes literate, “there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave” (266). The slave would have high potential to become cognizant of his exploited condition, and would then do anything necessary to escape bondage. Douglass clearly comes to this level of consciousness when he writes: “I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty - to wit, the white man's power to enslave the black man”. This power rests in education, and the denial of education. Thus education denied encourages perpetual slavery. For this reason, Frederick reveals that “from that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. It was just what I wanted, and I got it at a time when I the least expected it” (266). While using the word “it” three times to refer to the pathway to freedom, Douglass never explicitly makes mention of what the pathway to freedom entails. However, if education is what separates a slave from slave-owner, then the path to freedom must lie in education.

Are not all schools today, already trying to provide their students with an education? Yes, but therein lies the rub. Schools are employing education not as the means to an end, but simply as the end! If education is the end, then true freedom is nonexistent, and slavery can never be completely abolished. Thus the problem finally boils down to the most effective pedagogy that can be used to achieve education. Some students today are in the opposite position that black slaves once were in: free in body, but slaves to ignorance. Douglass proffers a solution when he admits that Mr. Auld’s “words sank deep into [his] heart” (266). While Mrs. Auld kindly educated his mind, Mr. Auld deeply affects his heart through “bitter opposition” (267). In much the same fashion, American institutions of learning must follow Douglass’ lesson, and teach students not only through memorization, but also through inspiration that strikes their hearts. Only then can the dichotomies between education and ignorance, morality and depravity, and slavery and freedom finally be bridged.

1 Unless otherwise noted, all page numbers refer to Jacobus, Lee A. A World of Ideas, New York, NY: Bedford/St. Martins 2006.

2006 Philosophy Paradise