Share

Opinion: Columnists

Noemie Emery: Well-schooled in order

By |
Opinion,Education,Noemie Emery,Columnists

As the year ends and begins, conservatives doubting their central convictions should read Stephanie Deutsch's "You Need a Schoolhouse," about Booker T. Washington's alliance with Sears Roebuck mogul Julius Rosenwald, and cheer.

Do conservatives venerate what Tocqueville called "associations" -- and Edmund Burke the "little platoons" of civil society -- as the bonds that hold people and countries together? Washington and Rosenwald were among these "platoons": private men who stood up for freed slaves and their children when they were cast adrift without structures to help them, and when the state itself failed to act.

The first school Washington attended after the Civil War ended was a one-room affair set up by a black Union veteran; his second was the Hampton Institute (the first prep school for black children), founded by a Union general in 1868. Graduating in 1875, he started his own school, went back to Hampton to teach and in 1881 left to head the Tuskegee Institute, the first academy for training black teachers, founded through an alliance between a black merchant and two white politicians who agreed to help him in exchange for his backing.

In 1911, black activist Washington met Jewish philanthropist Rosenwald through a white Protestant minister, and soon the two men were planning to seed small, one-room schoolhouses all over in underserved parts of the South. They started with six and ended with nearly 5,000, teaching one in every three black Southern children, helping build a black middle class and saving generations from ignorance. Score one for "little platoons" against bureaucratic indifference.

"Civil society" was never more needed, and it had never worked quite so well.

Do conservatives think welfare destroys human beings, that work should be done to earn benefits given, and that the premise of "something for nothing" yields nothing at all in return? So did Washington and Rosenwald. They made it a rule that communities had to match Rosenwald's gift of $350 per school or they would get nothing; that residents were expected to help build the school, help maintain it, and take care of it and the grounds. It worked. Where Rosenwald gave $4.3 million, the localities raised nearly $6 million more, giving not only their money but also their labor, and their love.

Do conservatives value order and structure, which Rosenwald was raised to admire, and which Washington came to revere? Born a slave, he was reared in the chaos that slavery fostered, not knowing the day of his birth, the name of his father, the routines of a household or what it meant to sit down to a meal. But at age 11 he went to work for Viola Ruffner, the Yankee wife of the local mine owner, a former schoolteacher who was said to be "fussy," and strict. She was. He ran away twice, but always returned, sensing her rigor held something of value that he needed in his life. For five years, she schooled him in aspects of order, taught him how to keep house and tend gardens, trained him to keep books and sell produce, gave him the run of the books in her study, and urged him to think about going to Hampton. He did, and found there the same standards that prevailed at the Ruffners' -- order and system, prayers and inspections, strict rules and hard work. What Mrs. Ruffner and Hampton both understood is that people living in chaos need order, not the "soft bigotry of low expectations."

What is the lesson to take from this story? Liberal goals need conservative values, without which these goals won't be met.

Examiner Columnist Noemie Emery is contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author of "Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families."

View article comments Leave a comment
Author:

Noemie Emery

Columnist
The Washington Examiner