Education Leads to Unhappiness—But a Good Unhappiness

In W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, I read “Of the Coming of John.”

This essay is about John, an educated African-American who runs into struggles when he tries to help his community.  When he urges his congregation to set aside doctrinal differences with other churches so they can unite on the advancement of African-Americans, an elderly African-American challenges him over a doctrinal matter.  And a white judge refuses to help John with a school for African-Americans because he thinks that they should be submissive, and fears that education will put “fool ideas of rising and equality into these folks heads, and make them discontented and unhappy…”

A big point of this essay seems to be that education made John unhappy.  After his education, “he first noticed now the oppression that had not seemed oppression before, differences that erstwhile seemed natural, restraints or slights that in his boyhood days had gone unnoticed or been greeted with a laugh” (146).  As he listened to beautiful music, he wondered who had a right to call him to be a “slave and butt of all…when a world like this lay open before men” (147).  John’s little sister asks him, “does it make every one—unhappy when they study and learn lots of things?” (150).  John answers that it does, and yet he is glad that he studied.

This appears to contradict some things that I read in earlier essays by Du Bois—which said that African-Americans without education are enraged at the injustices against them and may act in non-constructive ways against white society.  This essay, by contrast, is saying that education can lead a person to aspirations, discontent, and even anger, things he may not have had before.  After all, once a person learns about the possibilities that are out there, as well as sees the depth of injustice, he may be more inclined to change his situation.

But Du Bois’ point in this essay does overlap with something I’ve seen in previous essays: that the African-American community was reluctant to act to change its situation, due to its sense of hopelessness, the training it received for years to be subordinate, the corrupt usage of suffrage during Reconstruction, which discouraged African-Americans from even wanting to exercise the right to vote, etc.  Amidst that sort of attitude came John, who went against the grain when he encouraged his community to advance—educationally, economically, politically, etc.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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