Thought for the Evening: Du Bois and the Cultivation of a People's Intellectual Life
W. E. B. Du Bois's "Conservation of Races" is perhaps unsurprisingly usually read for its discussion of race, which Du Bois defines as "a vast family of human beings, generally of common blood and language, always of common history, traditions and impulses, who are both voluntarily and involuntarily striving together for the accomplishment of certain more or less vividly conceived ideals of life." However, the discussion of race in this sense is the background for what Du Bois is primarily discussing, which is a social program for the support and development of culture, or, perhaps more exactly, of a thriving and distinctive intellectual life.
Any such social cultivation of intellectual gifts is potentially powerful, but it can only be so, Du Bois argues, if the people involved in it are honest, earnest, inspired, and united:
(1) Honest: Such cultivation requires a willingness to engage in self-critique and to correct oneself in light of such reflection;
(2) Earnest: Such cultivation can only be furthered among a people who take themselves seriously as human beings capable of great things;
(3) Inspired: Such cultivation must draw strength and direction from a heritage that gives hope;
(4) United: Such cultivation is only possible among a people cooperating for mutual good.
All four of these, especially the last, require the development of organizations specifically for the purpose of furthering "careful conference and thoughtful interchange of opinion", such as the American Negro Academy that Du Bois is specifically addressing. In order to meet these ends, the organizations have to have three characteristics: they must in a specific sense be representative in character, they must be impartial in conduct, and they must be firm in leadership:
(I) Representative in Character: By 'representative', Du Bois does not mean representative of a people quite so much as he means representative to the people. The organizations that uphold and cultivate social intellectual and cultural life must in a sense hold up a mirror to the people they support, but the reflection must be a reflection of what is the best in the people: their "best thought", their "most unselfish striving", their "highest ideals". These things are already implicit in the people, but they are scattered: the organizations must see themselves as in part gathering them together in concentrated form.
(II) Impartial in Conduct: The organizations are exalting the people by drawing together the best that is in them, but this creates a potential temptation that must be avoided, namely to exaggerate or fictionalize in the misguided notion of exalting people that way. People can only be exalted if the reflection created by these supporting organizations is concerned with truth. It must be unlying and unflattering. And in particular, it must show that these high qualities implicit in the people are not things that simply fall into their laps; they are things for which one must work, things that require "a vast work of self-reformation" and "dogged work and manly striving".
(III) Firm in Leadership: Given the vast number of problems the people must solve, the organizations need to provide "a practical path of advance", not always so much in terms of specific solutions as in terms of general policy arising out of its representativeness and impartial honesty.
None of this is the work of a night; it is a long and difficult road, requiring considerable thought and cooperation.
Du Bois, of course, is thinking specifically of what is needed to build a system of support adequate to the black community, but he is deliberately doing so in light of the general conception of the infrastructure required for preserving and developing the intellectual and cultural life of communities, and it's clear enough that this account can be generalized to give an account of the characteristics of healthy organizations for intellectual life, wherever they are found. It serves, for instance, as a reasonable standard to which one should hold schools in general like colleges and universities, for instance.
Various Links of Interest
* Katja Vogt, Seneca, at the SEP
* David Heddendorf, On Being Kind
* Eitan Hersh, College-Educated Voters Are Ruining American Politics. I've argued something similar for broadly related reasons, but I think I regard the problem as more general than Hersh does, since I don't think activism has shown itself to be resistant to it.
* Byrne Hobart, Coins as Tangible History
* Moti Mizrahi, How to Play the "Playing God" Card (PDF)
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Two Towers
Christopher Tolkien, ed., The Treason of Isengard
John R. Page, What Will Dr. Newman Do? John Henry Newman and Papal Infallibility, 1865-1875
Julian of Norwich, The Showings of Julian Norwich
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