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Booker T. Washington

    Booker T. Washington (1856-1915)

    “The older I grow, the more I am convinced that there is no education which one can get from books and costly apparatus that is equal to that which can be gotten from contact with great men and women.”

    Leading by example was Washington’s idea of success. He saw his race progress in human interaction combined with appropriate behavior and acquired tangible skills. Washington understood the significance of keeping company with great men and women. He thought that being in the company of great individuals and learning through experience was the right path toward quality education.

    Booker T. Washington, was a teacher, activist, and the most prominent black leader of his time. His philosophy was a lecture on self-help, racial harmony, and adjustment. He advised his people to focus on hard work and material prosperity, temporarily leaving aside the issue of discrimination. Washington believed that African Americans would be fully accepted and integrated into society by acquiring industrial and farming skills and by cultivating tolerance and initiative. Therefore, he urged them to work on their business and economic safety rather than concentrate on winning full civil rights. Washington’s idea for his people was to win their community’s respect and acceptance gradually by gaining wealth and culture. His “Atlanta compromise” speech, brought him national fame as he called upon the progress of African Americans through education and entrepreneurship. Washington’s practical approach was incorporated in one of his famous phrases:

    In all things that are purely social we can be separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.”


    Booker T. Washington was born on April 5, 1856, in Franklin county, Virginia, and died on November 14, 1915, in Tuskegee, Alabama.

    He was born a slave but he was determined to get an education and enrolled at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia in 1872. He worked through his schooling to pay for his expenses. In 1875, Washington graduated. For two years he worked as a teacher, teaching children during the day, and adults during the night. He continued his studies at Wayland Seminary, Washington, where he joined Hampton’s staff. Washington was chosen to lead a newly established school for African Americans at Tuskegee, which became a symbol of his life’s work. What started as a small unequipped school, thirty-four years later turned into an Institute with more than 100 well-equipped buildings, around 1,500 students, almost 200 teachers teaching 38 trades and professions, and a legacy of almost $2 million. For his life’s work and contributions, Washington was awarded an honorary master’s degree from Harvard University, and a doctorate from Dartmouth College. His greatest achievement is inscribed on the monument built in his honor at the center of Tuskegee University:

    “He lifted the veil of ignorance from his people and pointed the way to progress through education and industry.”


    Booker T. Washington’s commitment to education helped thousands of African Americans to become a substantial part of the educational process and work towards self-improvement. He was an intellectual, who knew the importance of learning valuable skills. Washington perceived industrial education as a necessary means, a stepping stone, and a promotional tool. He insisted on industrial education not because he believed that his race is incapable of mastering scholarly subjects, but because he believed that practical skills and knowledge were far more useful for preparing the individual to become a functional member of society. He was convinced that creating something of value as a contribution to society was far more important than analyzing and theorizing probability. Washington believed that producing and doing something was a better way to show knowledge and ability than speculation. His theory of education was based on the following principles:

    • The path to success is giving and providing for oneself in addition to providing for others;
    • A critical aspect of acquiring knowledge is leading by example;
    • An educational program should be a reflection of society and the life of the students;
    • Industrial education allows students to learn a trade and be productive members of society;
    • Students need a foundation in education, business, and property;
    • Students need to know how the forces of nature (air, water, steam, electricity) contribute to them in their labor;
    • Students should learn what to do and how to resolve problems;
    • Education best happens when students learn by advancing from the familiar to the abstract;
    • Students use several modalities to study content and ideas;
    • Education should value both academic theory and practical experience;
    • Personal experience should serve as the foundation for education;
    • Education has to be based on the real world and not the “fake” or forced teacher-directed projects to unite theoretical and abstract academic ideas with the student’s social and economic surroundings;
    • Education should promote economic progress;
    • A successful school is project-based;
    • Students should be able to identify problems, find solutions, and combine their vocational and academic skills;
    • Students should be doing, not discussing;
    • The curriculum has to be based on student’s personal experiences;
    • The curriculum is a link between the student’s life experience and the student’s formal education;
    • Quality education connects the life of the student with the life of the school.

    Washington believed that his students can develop higher-order thinking skills through logically demanding tasks and culturally applicable experience. Therefore, the students at the Tuskegee Institute fulfilled intellectually challenging work in a unique way that was both meaningful and related to their lives. He encouraged his students to cooperate to produce public products, and manage their teams, often incorporating students from multiple grade levels. Washington’s educational approach was more than just a teaching concept. What started in his institute as a positive practice expanded to many other quality schools that valued experience and practice over theory.

    Booker T. Washington with Andrew Carnegie


    Washington’s teaching ideas and methods applied at the Tuskegee Institute had a tremendous impact on education. Not only were they useful in the 19th century, but they can be used as an example in today’s schools as well. Let’s analyze and make the most of Washington’s methodology in a more modern educational concept:

    • Washington and his Tuskegee colleagues teaching models and ideas were directly related to their students’ lived experiences. In their time that involved subjects like agriculture, building, and engineering. However, teachers of today could use more socially relevant approaches and give students the chance to leverage subject fields that span from computer science to e-commerce and marketing.;
    • Washington strongly believed that students need a chance to experiment, invent, and acquire knowledge. Students should have the opportunity to tackle complex problems and cooperate on their solutions. Also, the student community at the Tuskegee Institute shared their values, and norms through training and partnerships. Teachers of today can create a project-based curriculum where students learn by doing, by making experiments, and by coming to their own conclusions. Teachers can encourage students’ cooperation by working in pairs, and groups, to create a cooperative environment necessary for students’ advancement;
    • Washington thought that students’ experiences could eventually serve as a foundation for their education. Therefore, he believed that the curriculum should meet students’ current intellectual needs. Also, he thought that education should focus on the broader requirements of society, and besides academics, he felt the need for industrial education. He wanted to prepare students to be industrious and successful both in work and life. Teachers of today should prepare students for lifelong learning. By helping students acquire modern society’s skill set, teachers prepare them to be productive members of society;
    • Washington built an entire school around a curriculum, not the other way around. The curriculum at Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute was planned according to the daily life projects. His “project method” approach was a way of life in the Institute. As the school grew and developed, the curriculum changed accordingly. He gave students a chance to develop industrial and scientifically-based agricultural skills. Washington taught his students about the values of work and ethics. They had the opportunity to solve real-life problems like constructing a building that would eventually serve as a boy’s dormitory. Teachers of today can also create a curriculum based on the student’s daily life issues. That way students can learn new skills by overcoming everyday obstacles and challenges.

    Washington’s ideas could address many educational challenges we are facing today. Starting from the idea of adjusting subjects and curriculum to suit students’ needs to forming original, culturally significant experiences, and finally connecting students to the wider community creates a 21st-century education for all students to benefit from. Using 19th-century educational ideas in modern 21st-century society speaks highly of Washington’s vision and goals. No wonder, he is known as the most influential spokesman and educator of his time. Even though he was born in slavery he rose above it all and became a leading African American intellectual.  Booker T. Washington will always be remembered as an educational reformist, founder of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, the National Negro Business League, and the first African American adviser of presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.

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