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W.E.B. DuBois: Of the Wings of Atalanta

W.E.B. DuBois was an American Negro intellectual, writer, educator and social activist. He was born in 1868 and lived until 1963. Chapter Five in his collection of essays titled, The Souls of Black Folk, is an essay that uses the Atalanta story out of Greek mythology as a way of discussing what he perceived as a danger to liberal arts education in Southern universities, his concern that black people will be hampered by a loss of liberal arts education and his further concern for the materialistic attitude toward life in general that was taking over the New South.

In the myth of Atalanta, the young woman was a swift runner and she was not particularly interested in getting married. Of course, because all women were expected to get married, this caused a lot of trouble for her, so she set the condition that she would only marry the man who could catch her. The Dubois telling of the legend doesn't say it but some versions say that the penalty for losing a race with her was death. At any rate, along comes a man who pretty much refuses to take "no" for answer and by methods not really explained, this young man, whose name was Hippomenes, obtained three golden apples that he used to distract Atalanta and so won the race. It is further stated in not only the Dubois telling but another version I read that the passion that flared between the two runners was so strong that they in some way profaned a temple.

DuBois opens his essay with a lyrical discussion of the city of Atlanta, Georgia as he knew it, describing among other things, the small, all black university that was there. That is his setting. He also discusses the strength of Atlanta coming back from the devastation of the Civil War. This man had a rare view because while he celebrated the end of slavery, he also mourns the loss of what was good in the Old South even with the evil of slavery. He mourns the loss of the idea of the old-fashion Southern Gentleman, and all the concern of honorable, respectful behavior that we think of. He also discusses the black, family servitor who served with dignity and quiet pride. One might the real loss mourned might have been a loss of certitude in a world of tumultuous change. DuBois goes on to discuss how the city of Atlanta has embraced manufacturing and industry, and uses Atlanta's experience as a reference for what was happening all over the South.

Further, it would seem deductible that there has been a problem in the Southern universities and the few all black Southern universities especially. The problem, as Dubois sees it, is a change in the education being offered. DuBois criticizes Howard, Fiske and his own Atlanta university for drifting toward curriculums that cater to the industrial mind-set. He also suggests that this welcoming of a different form of education is taking place all through the South.

What does all this have to do with Atalanta and the golden apples? Dubois offers the university as the modern version of Atalanta. He wants her to run her race true and strong. What to him is a true, strong race? Liberal Arts: mathematics, humanities such as philosophy, ethics, art and music, literature, languages such as Latin, or Greek and perhaps in his day, French also and the study of the ancient civilizations. This was the classic education offered not only in the great universities of the North, Harvard, Columbia and Yale, but in universities overseas -- Oxford, Leipzig, and the great German schools. Dubois offers a Liberal Arts education as a requirement so that all educated people, regardless of where they come from, have a common basis of information. He also offers Liberal Arts as the means to create the thinkers who will be the people who will provide the education that will most effectively help the industrially-based schools, which he considers on the rung below the university. DuBois also offers the idea that the Black man cannot become an equal in society without being able to speak the language of the classic academy.

DuBois sees the growth of industrialization as the equivalent of Hippomenes and his golden apples in that industrialization represents a new economy, a new opportunity, in some respects a new god -- money. DuBois sees the new materialism as destroying learning for the love of learning, seeking truth for the sake of Truth, and pride of workmanship. He sees these 'golden apples' as being more important than the process. It seems as if he very clearly sees the change that is taking place, the change that makes the money at the end and the accumulating of money the only important things, rather than the goal of becoming an educated person.

DuBois does not think the only form of education should be that of the university. He sees the need for what we would now call the community college and the trade school, however it is very clear that he doesn't see how those institutions, let alone the public schools can be properly foundationed without those who are educated in the fashion of the classic university. He is clearly in favor of every man being trained to the maximum he can learn so that he can do whatever job he will to the best of his ability, regardless of whether the man will be a philosopher or a bricklayer or in his words:

But these builders did make a mistake in minimizing the gravity of the problem before them ... laying their foundation carelessly, and lowering the standard of knowing, until they had scattered through the South some dozen poorly equipped high schools and mis-called them universities. They forgot, too, ... The rule of inequality: -- that of the million black youth, some were fitted to know and some to dig; that some had the talent and capacity of university men, and some had the talent and capacity of blacksmiths; and that true training meant neither that all should be college men nor all artisans, but that one should be a missionary of culture to an untaught people and the other a free workman among serfs. (DuBois pg. 421)

As the essay is read and re-read, it is possible to see that Dubois is demonstrating his point by the very manner of the writing. Without having terms such as archetype to work with he seems to tap into the idea. Myths and legends become what they are because they keep reminding us of values that never change or perhaps truths that never change. It is something to speculate on, to consider that this writer used this story out of a large collection. How curious the similarity of the name, and to be able to use the story in a way to make the point of his concern requires the rich imagination that DuBois seems to be trying to say the university is responsible for training.

To take this myth, separate the various elements of it out, and then be able to apply those elements to the points he wanted to make was excellent advertisement for the point he was trying to make. It was important to make the points that the South was making many changes that people, both black and white were going through many changes. DuBois said in many different ways that in order for the best to come of the new life in the South, there needed to be leaders who could think and speculate on where change might lead and how to use the change to shape life to be the best for all. He was adamant that in order for blacks to have a voice in the shaping and be listened to, the universities that would be responsible for their education must strive to offer education on the same subjects and levels as the great white universities.

Thinking is the foundation of all true progress. It is what planning is based on. Thinking in a broad perspective is necessary for progress. Even in Dubois' earlier days -- this was written in approximately 1903 -- he seemed to be able to see that that bringing down racism would require some common ground and he saw classical liberal arts education as the way to provide this common ground so that Blacks could speak the same language. Dubois wasn't the first or the last to recognize that one of the functions of higher education -- indeed all education -- is to provide a common vocabulary, a common language. This is true no matter what the discipline the learner is following.

DuBois also uses this myth to describe what he sees as the possible seduction and corruption of the New South, and perhaps, our society in general by an angry, aggressive materialism that will denigrate us all. Those golden apples: they represent the loss of integrity, the…[continue]

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