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Theoretical Grounds On Education Of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois And John Dewey

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Du Bois’ idea of Education
  3. John Dewey’s idea of Education
  4. Conclusion


As a comparative essay is a theoretical identification of the similarities and differences in any two subjects, this document tries to establish the same between the two thinkers, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois and John Dewey. The main theme of discussion is how the idea of education of the two thinkers differ or concur and how relevant they are in the 21st century. While the time period of both the personalities coincided, they addressed vastly different aspects of education, a hypothesis that will be addressed and adequately answered in the rest of the essay. It begins with a detailed discussion of Du Bois’ ideas about education, the influence of his social experiences and political preferences and the core purpose of such ideals. The next part focuses on the educational ideologies of the second thinker that is John Dewey and how they characteristically differ from Du Bois’. The essay concludes with a brief point-to-point comparison of both the thinkers’ theories with comments on their significance in the 21st century.

Du Bois’ idea of Education

Du Bois’ personal academic excellence can be gauged from the fact that he was the first African-American to receive a doctorate from an Ivy League School-Harvard University and continued to work tirelessly in the realm of education throughout his life (, n.d.). As a dedicated civil rights activist and a strong advocate of African rights he recognized the negative impact that racial segregation and isolation, an ideal deeply embedded in American culture, had on black communities. From quality education to equal job opportunities, the African community faced deprivation and discrimination. For almost forty years of his life, Bois ambitiously and relentlessly supported liberal education for the African-Americans (Greco, 1978, p.77). He struggled for the non-violent integration of African-Americans in public colleges and schools.

Du Bois believed that only equal opportunities in education especially at college-level could enable the black community to excel in various, practical walks of life. It is noteworthy, however, that the key focus of his pedagogic emphasis was classical education. The social conditions of the black people crumbling under the Jim Crow laws in the South and the similarly, stratified North were abhorrent and like most progressive thinkers Du Bois also believed that science and the liberal arts could contribute significantly in solving these problems. In fact he was vehemently opposed to vocational schooling, an idea being promulgated by the American-African educator, Booker Taliaferro Washington through the Atlantic Compromise (Du Bois, 1903). According to this unofficial agreement, the black community in the South was forced to abandon basic human rights and succumb to both racial segregation and white supremacy in exchange for citizenship and recognition (Dill, Morrison and Dunn, 2016, pp. 366).

Fueled by an overwhelmingly sense of liberation and patriotism, Du Bois openly rejected this enduring settlement and continued to rally his slogan of equal education for African-Americans. In his essay ‘Talented Tenth’ (1903) Du Bois gave strong statistical proof to support his arguments. A staggeringly small number of Negro graduates from white colleges showed how injustice and prejudice was stunting black intelligence. Simultaneously, a large number of college-educated black Americans occupying administrative and governmental vacancies indicated that classical education could transform them into leaders, promoting strong social ideals for their communities. In fact Du Bois, believed that this was the sole purpose of education; to produce thinkers, leaders and philosophers who could actively impart their knowledge and wisdom to the rest of the community, rallying them towards prosperity (Du Bois, 1903).

However, it must be borne in mind that Du Bois’ conceptual foundation of education and tutelage was essentially socio-political (Dunn, 1993, p.3). In his point of view integrating black Americans in white educational capacities indicated equality and parity between the two races and could enable the oppressed nation to progress. In fact Du Bois was essentially a man of politics. He held politics in higher regard to both economy and education which resulted in the former heavily influencing the latter two. This is where the shortcomings of Du Bois’ revolutionary educational ideologies materialize. Based on ethnocentrism, his academic ideals largely circulated around freedom for black Americans instead of fulfilling a more universal purpose that included subject understanding, scientific knowledge, and classroom activities etcetera (Dunn, 1993, p.3). According to DuBois’ philosophy classical education was only meant to respond to the oppressions of an inherently racist society and not to address a more general issue of knowledge understanding of the world. In fact most of his educational efforts revolved around attempts for liberation, from the Nigerian Movement to publications like the Souls of Black Folks. His written publications were constant tributes to the valor and genius of black people and a reminder to use ‘double consciousnes’s as their strength and not a reality that crippled them in the past.

Moreover, it can be argued that the very evil of divide and disparity that DuBois fought against can be found in his concept of the Talented Tenth. Du Bois believed that while classical education was more beneficial than industrial education, only a few in the African community could yield all its benefits and rise to the task of forming a strong, uncompromising leadership class, that is precisely every tenth black person (James, 2014). Ergo, as an extension of this concept only a few deserved higher education at white colleges and universities, so they can reach their full potential. Despite its negative implications the notion proved to be extremely popular and useful for a community that was constantly being subjected to degradations by the white patriarchy. From the deep pits of physical and mental enslavement to acceptance as a human race was a long journey and ensuring that there was a strong, capable and dependable leader pulling the rest of the community to its destination not only seemed like a relevant solution then, it hasn’t lost its potency till date (L'Monique, 2013). In conclusion, Du Bois’ educational epitomes were centered at freedom and equality for a disenfranchised African community in America.

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John Dewey’s idea of Education

Contrary to Du Bois, John Dewey’s progressive educational theory focused primitively on academic essentials like the dynamics of the classroom, the importance of curriculum and the role of the teacher. In other words, his academic ideals were more universal. Indeed to the point where they became instrumental in the moral foundation of countless American educational institutions in the 21st century. Dewey adopted a child-dedicated approach to pedagogy and believed that for the productive development of the student social interaction was imperative. He portrayed the classroom as a social environment where communication was key, not only for the exchange of knowledge but also for the development of ethical values.

In contrast to the norms of traditional education and sage on stage approach of instruction, Dewey believed that the teaching process must be more engaging, actively allowing students to participate and respond to the changing circumstances. According to Dewey’s educational beliefs, the boundaries of a classroom should allow every student to learn and grow in his/her intellectual capacity and instead of imposing their knowledge on every individual, teachers must function as guides or mentors illuminating the path of wisdom and understanding (Schiro, 2012). This is because Dewey strongly endured that an institution is not only responsible for imparting knowledge, it must teach an individual how to live.

Instead of feeding large chunks of information that students were expected to memorize and reproduce in evaluations and examinations, he proposed indulging the children in real-life situations that could stimulate knowledge from past experiences and educating them as how they must be dealt with effectively. (Flinders and Thornton, n,d,). It was this notion of practical learning and experiential learning that earned Dewey the title of Father of Pragmatism in education. Dewey believed that a child’s education must not be restricted in the four walls of a classroom. Instead they must be encouraged to go outdoors, explore and understand their environment and extract valuable knowledge from their surroundings. This allowed a child’s experience to be more realistic, relatable and authentic and helped him/her learn more and more about the real world (Graham, 2007).

Dewey was of the view that an unreasonable amount of coursework, inadvertently compels students to resort to unethical behavior, a provision which was drastically in contradiction to the spirit of his ideology that is education for social reform. Unlike Du Bois, for whom education was singularly necessary for liberation and political benefit, Dewey believed that it was a source of valuable social improvement and moral development.

Democracy was also a notable theme of Dewey’s academic ideologies (Beckett, 2017). Through his ideas of progressive education he managed to redefine the relationship of democracy and mankind in his book ‘Democracy and Education : An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education,’ published in 1916. Reinventing the conceptual boundaries of democracy Dewey argued that it didn’t only reciprocate to political aspects like voting rights and employment opportunities it had a more broader meaning of sufficiently equipping an individual in a social environment so that he/she can make more sensible and informed decisions, benefitting the community as a whole (Stobie, 2016). In the context of democracy, he laid great emphasis on social responsibility and reliability. He was aware that if democracy had to work on a political level, the change had to be initiated at the grass root level, at the level of each individual citizen educating himself. The educator himself had witnessed two wars, convincing him that it was becoming increasingly important for students to be fully prepared for an unpredictable future. Therefore, excelling in only one subject was not enough. Multi-disciplinary education was the hour of the need and it was crucial that children could tackle real life- problems. Democracy was revolutionary and so must be the view of children towards past theories- they must be reevaluated, questioned and altered to fit the changing circumstances.

In conclusion, James Dewey’s idea of education was focused on establishing modern, progressive educational standards that ensured both the mental and moral development of children.


The above discussion proves that highly prominent and compelling differences can be identified in the ideas of education of both the philosophers. While Du Bois uses academics as an intellectual weapon to break free from the shackles of racial divide and prejudice, Dewey focuses on the finer details of tutelage like the relevance of content, the reputation of a classroom and the responsibilities of teachers. Du Bois’ contributions to education which include his innumerable essays and editorials, are mostly relevant to a particular time, intended for a particular group of people, while Dewey’s publications are more universal sources of valuable information that can aid academicians through many generations. The core theme of Du Bois’ work is the ‘color line’ and the ultimate struggle of those on the darker side of the spectrum for freedom while Dewey encompasses the importance of all social change and reform, democracy being an important notion in this context. Du Bois’ ideas were political while Dewey was inclined towards a moral revolution. To determine the superiority of one’s concepts over another would be equivalent to doing blatant injustice to the unparalleled efforts of both, therefore the relevance of both the visionaries in their respective genres must be acknowledged. De Bois’ theory of the talented tenth introduced the concept of an undeterred and reigning leadership to the world while Dewey’s pragmatism familiarized us with academic principles for a child’s moral and intellectual growth. He reinvented democracy, stripping it off of its common political understanding and laying its importance on the shoulders of each individual in the society. He propagated the notion that democracy is not a right or a provision, it is in fact a way of life. The theories of both the educators hold immense importance in political and academic circles till date. A cause that Du Bois fought for over two centuries ago, has finally been fulfilled as black Americans fill up managerial positions and presidential offices. On the other hand, the educational framework offered by Dewey, is till date being implemented in countless schools and colleges (Williams, 2017).

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Theoretical Grounds On Education Of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois And John Dewey. (2021, September 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 8, 2023, from
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