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Anna Julia Cooper: Uplifting the Oppressed With Liberal Arts Education

Anna Julia Cooper passionately defended classical education during the Reconstruction Era when the dilemma of how to educate former slaves arose. Cooper, a former slave herself, preached the virtue of classics and their necessary vitality to the soul.

Why would a Black American female ex-slave revere the wisdom of dead white men? As I read the essays of Anna Julia Cooper (1858-1964) this spring, this question was at the front of my mind. As a classical educator who offers apologetics on why classics should still be taught, I wanted to know why Anna Julia Cooper would perpetuate the liberal arts.

Through her essays and the added commentary of Charles Lamert in The Voice of Anna Julia Cooper: Including A Voice From the South and Other Important Essays, Papers, and Letters, I was delighted to become friends with Anna Julia Cooper.[1] I found her voice a kindred spirit. She embodied the ideals I want to imitate as a “paideia proselytizer:” faithful wife and mother who nurtured learning in the home, teacher of the classics, scholar, and virtue cultivator. In light of the current conversations about college campuses closing their classics departments, the voice of Anna Julia Cooper refutes these actions.

Anna Julia Cooper was born in 1858 in North Carolina and died in 1964 in Washington, D.C., where she spent most of her adult life. Born a slave, she lived through Emancipation, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Harlem Renaissance, and died at the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement at the ripe age of 106. What an amazing life! She was the head mistress of the renowned M school in D.C. for twenty-five years, then advanced in her graduate education at Columbia University. At age sixty-six, she completed her doctoral thesis in Paris at the Sorbonne. (For all those like me earning doctorates in their forties, she offers hope!) She was a master in languages and history, but her popularity as a Black female civil rights speaker and writer was what made her historically relevant. Even after her retirement from teaching in her seventies, she worked as president at Frelinghuysen University in Washington, D.C, which offered educational opportunities to the area’s adult working poor. She essentially was the creator of community college. Her contemporaries in education were giants such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, and John Dewey. Yet Cooper, who was as distinguished and as learned as these men (or more so), is lesser known for her contribution to civil rights and education. Maybe this is because her sphere of influence “centered deeply around the home, religion, and proper public conduct.”[2] Or it could be due to her unpopular devotion to the classics. Maybe it was both.

She passionately defended a classical education during a time when education was changing drastically in the years following the Civil War. The Reconstruction Era brought with it the dilemma of how to educate former slaves. Anna Julia Cooper, a former slave herself, preached the virtue of classics and their necessary vitality to ex-slaves’ souls. She says in her essay, “Ethics of the Negro Question,”

The American Negro is today but 37 years removed from chattledom, not long enough surely to ripen the century plant of a civilization. After 250 years of a most debasing slavery, inured to toil but not to thrift, without home, without family ties, without those habits of self-reliant industry by which peoples maintain their struggle for existence, poor, naked, weak, ignorant, degraded even below his pristine state as a savage, the American Negro was at the close of the War of the Rebellion ‘cut loose’ as the slang of the day expressed it, and left to fend for himself.[3]

Cooper was adamant that former slaves had a role to play in the Great Conversation in order to cultivate humanity. After years of being treated inhumanely, ex-slaves deserved an education rich in the humanities which formed persons holistically. This idea was not popular during Reconstruction nor Post-Reconstruction when the Civil War, Emancipation, and Industrialism all came to a frightening head after the turn of the century. The popular ideas leaned toward pragmatic utility for economic growth.

After the turn of the century, Cooper’s “antiquated” ideas about education were unpopular and she struggled to compete with the widely held pragmatic vision of education. However, she was unafraid of unpopularity and engaged her contemporaries bravely in disagreement. At one point, she was dismissed from her position at the M School in D.C. because she insisted that classics be incorporated into the curriculum. The powers at the “Tuskegee Machine” (a term Du Bois designated for Booker T. Washington’s vocational schooling) were responsible for her dismissal. They could not remove her on grounds of poor teaching or poor curriculum—her students were excelling and gaining acceptance into many prominent colleges. Instead, they created bogus charges regarding an inappropriate relationship between her and a foster child. This humiliation did not stop Cooper. Five years later, she was reinstated. In the meantime, she rallied her efforts. She continued to teach the classics, educate herself, all while helping oppressed students of all ages grow in moral character and skill. Her Victorian ideals of education as social uplift permeated her home and all areas of her social sphere as well as her teaching duties.

In her manifesto, “On Education,” written in 1930, Anna Julia Cooper argues that the purpose of education is for the whole person—“mind, body, and spirit.” Another catchphrase popular at the time was education for “head, heart, and hand” which is the mantra for local universities near me, such as College of the Ozarks (which now offers a classical school for elementary and secondary students on its grounds) and John Brown University, at their beginning in 1907 and 1919 respectively. In the introduction, Cooper writes:

The only sane education, therefore, is that which conserves the very lowest stratum, the best and most economical is that which gives to each individual, according to his capacity, that training of ‘head, hand, and heart,’ or more literally, of mind, body and spirit which converts him into a beneficent force in the service of the world. This is the business of schools and this the true cause of the deep and vital interest of all the people in Educational Programs.[4]

She then addresses her opponents of liberal arts education. Without calling out Booker T. Washington or John Dewey personally, she indicates their philosophies and provides a rebuttal for “specialized education” and “learning by doing.” While not opposed to training, Cooper refuted specialization too early in a child’s life without a foundation in a liberal arts education first, comparing it to “bears sometimes eat[ing] their cubs and humans fatten[ing] on child labor.”[5] For Cooper, a general liberal arts education was her priority for elementary and secondary students to adapt to whatever vocation God called them to:

We must, whatever else we do, insist on those studies which by the consensus of educators are calculated to train our people to think, which will give them the power of appreciation and make them righteous. In a word, we are building men, not chemists or farmers, or cooks, or soldiers, but men ready to serve the body politic in whatever vocation.[6]

Her reasoning echoes contemporary educational philosopher David Hicks in his educational manifesto Norms and Nobility: A Treatise on Education when he says: “The classical scholars, however, recognized the material efficiency may make life possible, but it does not make society civilized or life worth living, nor is it alone capable of preserving the democratic ideals.”[7] Classical education offers more to humans than mere skills. It identifies a purpose and meaning for life.

Anna Julia Cooper—wife, mother, educator, scholar, speaker, writer, feminist, and civil rights activist—embodied the many qualities of a well-educated, flourishing person. She was a life-long learner who lived out her calling in virtue as a product of the Victorian era. Her home was a center for discussion and soul-growth. She was a woman who knew “exactly who she was” [8] and this is likely because of the superb yet rare classical education offered to her post-Civil War. The classical education that Anna Julia Cooper defended espouses the pedagogy which honors human dignity in a world of indignity. It honors virtue above skills, and it honors universal truth, beauty, and goodness for all people of all races and social classes.

I was delighted to discover the less familiar voice of Anna Julia Cooper and hope to inspire others with her ideas. Her voice deserves a megaphone. Contemporary classical educators should exalt Anna Julia Cooper as a model for their educational journey, remembering that a liberal arts education should not be reserved for the elite few. May we always recall this inspirational educator who encouraged a holistic and liberal education for the oppressed and invited all to uplift their soul in the Great Conversation.

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[1] Charles C. Lemert and Esme Bhan, The Voice of Anna Julia Cooper: Including A Voice From the South and Other Important Essays, Papers and Letters (Boston: Rowman & Littlefield pub. inc., 1998).

[2] Ibid., 4.

[3] Anna Julia Cooper, “‘Ethics of the Negro Question,’” in The Voice of Anna Julia Cooper: Including A Voice From the South and Other Important Essays, Papers and Letters, ed. Charles Lamert (Lanham, MD: Roman and Littlefield, 1998), 210.

[4] Anna Julia Cooper, “On Education,” in The Voice of Anna Julia Cooper: Including A Voice From the South and Other Important Essays, Papers and Letters, ed. Charles Lamert and Esme Bhan (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1930), 250.

[5] Ibid., 255.

[6] Ibid., 251

[7] David V. Hicks, Norms & Nobility: A Treatise on Education (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1999), 79.

[8] Charles C. Lemert and Esme Bhan, The Voice of Anna Julia Cooper: Including A Voice From the South and Other Important Essays, Papers and Letters (Boston: Rowman & Littlefield pub. inc., 1998), 4.

The featured image is a photograph of Anna Julia Cooper (1858-1964), seated, with book on her lap (c. 1902) by C.M. Bell and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.

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