Life. Education. Books. Films.

Sunday 10 November 2019

The Frederick Douglass Story: A Revolutionary Idea For Our So-Called Modern Education System

The life of a slave is pitiful but Frederick Douglass, although a slave in the early years of his life, shows us that any person can become an inspiration to humanity; he also showed how important a role education plays to the freedom and empowerment of a human being.

The turning point came in his life came when the new, kind wife of his owner saw him with a soft heart and taught him the English alphabet and how to spell very short words. This process carried on for a few days before the owner found out that his wife had been teaching a slave the written word. He stopped her from doing so and explained, 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.”

 From that day onwards, his mistress changed from a loving lamb to a strict tigress; love and kindness for the slaves had left her heart. She stopped teaching Douglass and he observed, “Nothing seemed to make her more angry than to see me with a newspaper.”

At this stage, Douglass’s life story gets more interesting. He only knew the English alphabet and a few words. He was still an illiterate person like the way I am in Arabic; I can recognise the Arabic alphabet and I can spell, read and understand a few words in Arabic, and in addition this, as a Muslim, I recite my prayers in Arabic for over 4 decades; yet I have not progress beyond this very low literacy level in Arabic. But Douglass was different. He would not only master the alphabet but he would be literate, articulate, fluent in speech and writing. Where Douglass succeeded, many of us have failed in our mastery of second and third languages. So how did little Douglass master the English language without a teacher?
Frederick Douglass in 1879

So how did Douglass master the written word without an adult teaching him? Let’s hear his story in his own words.

“The plan which I adopted, and the one by which I was most successful, was that of making friends of all the little white boys whom I met in the street. As many of these as I could, I converted into teachers. With their kindly aid, obtained at different times and in different places, I finally succeeded in learning to read. When I was sent of errands, I always took my book with me, and by going one part of my errand quickly, I found time to get a lesson before my return. I used also to carry bread with me, enough of which was always in the house, and to which I was always welcome; for I was much better off in this regard than many of the poor white children in our neighborhood. This bread I used to bestow upon the hungry little urchins, who, in return, would give me that more valuable bread of knowledge. I am strongly tempted to give the names of two or three of those little boys, as a testimonial of the gratitude and affection I bear them; but prudence forbids; not that it would injure  me, but it might embarrass  them; for it is almost an unpardonable offence to teach slaves to read in this Christian country.” (Extract from Chapter 7 of Frederick Douglass’s The Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave).

As a tutor of mostly 11 and 12 year olds, I am impressed by what Douglass had achieved at the age of 12; he was paying the poor white children with bread for teaching him to read.  This can be likened to a child paying his tutor the tuition fees with the little money he has. However, in the Singapore reality, many children are reluctant to learn during individualized tuition  sessions.  For me, when this is prolonged, I sometimes drop the student, often feeling frustrated. 

So why was Frederick Douglass so eager to learn while our children with relative lives of ease are often reluctant? I leave Frederick Douglass to explain this to you (but I have underlined the sentences that contain the essence).

"Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once 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.  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.”  These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought.  It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain.  I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man."

"It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly.  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.  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.  Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read.  The very decided manner with which he spoke, and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering.  It gave me the best assurance that I might rely with the utmost confidence on the results which, he said, would flow from teaching me to read.  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; and the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn.  In learning to read, I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly aid of my mistress.  I acknowledge the benefit of both."

If I have to choose a word from Douglass's writing which points to the answer of the question asked above, I would say "meaningful" or "purposeful". Real learning takes place when the learner sees purpose or meaning in the learning activity. Yet this simple word would stump many teachers. How do I know so? Because as a youth, I had asked my teachers, "How is this Subject meaningful?" None could answer this question then, and very few can answer them today. 

A few decades have passed and today, I realise that if a teacher does not know how or why a subject is meaningful, it is unlikely that the students he teaches will find the subjects he teaches meaningful. This ignorance on the part of the teacher is a key reason why many students find their schooling meaningless. If you are a teacher reading this, ask yourself why and how the subjects you are teaching are meaningful; do not stop searching until you have found the answers. And when you do, relook at why and how you teach. Have you been teaching the subjects in ways to make them meaningful? If yes, well and good. If no, revolutionize the ways you teach.