Learning in Spite of Disadvantage

Intellectual Takeout | November 23, 2015

Many governmental policies today are attempting to eliminate disadvantages between students in the education system. In particular, much attention has been focused on policies designed to eliminate the “achievement gap” between white and non-white students.

But do minority students today also need to seek to overcome disadvantages through their own efforts? The life of Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) suggests so. While a slave, at about the age of 12, Douglass managed to learn a few letters of the alphabet. This little taste of knowledge whet his appetite for more, and bit by bit, Douglass learned to read. His autobiography - which is still required reading in many schools - goes on to tell how he took his newfound reading ability and ran with it:

“Fortunately, or unfortunately, I had earned a little money in blacking boots for some gentlemen, with which I purchased of Mr. Knight, on Thames street, what was then a very popular school-book, viz., ‘The Columbian Orator,’ for which I paid fifty cents. I was led to buy this book by hearing some little boys say they were going to learn some pieces out of it for recitation. This volume was indeed a rich treasure, and every opportunity afforded me, for a time, was spent in diligently perusing it. … I met there one of Sheridan’s mighty speeches, on the subject of Catholic Emancipation, Lord Chatham’s speech on the American War, and speeches by the great William Pitt, and by Fox. These were all choice documents to me, and I read them over and over again, with an interest ever increasing, because it was ever gaining in intelligence; for the more I read them the better I understood them. The reading of these speeches added much to my limited stock of language, and enabled me to give tongue to many interesting thoughts which had often flashed through my mind and died away for want of words in which to give them utterance.”

Below is a page from the table of contents of The Columbian Orator


Today, slavery is illegal. Unfortunately, though, many minority students find themselves in urban schools that offer difficult environments in which to learn. As Condoleezza Rice famously said, she can look at a student’s zip code and tell whether he or she is going to get a good education. 

It is commendable that the government wishes to pursue policies aimed at improving these schools. However, students at these schools can afford neither to wait for these policies nor depend upon them. They’ll ultimately have to make a heroic, individual effort like Frederick Douglass’ if they truly wish to learn. 

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