For the past few months, ever since I read Dr. Gholdy Muhammad’s Cultivating Genius and began learning from her articles and presentations, I’ve been thinking about a question she frequently centers in her work: why don’t we use a “Black and Brown model as our framework of education,” especially when we are educating Black, Indigenous and Students of Color? One of my summer projects is reading more deeply in the theories and practices of Black educational philosophers so that I can begin to envision such a model and framework.
I have spent the morning with the brilliant Anna Julia Cooper, a scholar, teacher, activist, and educational theorist. Cooper’s thinking about education is rooted in her work as a teacher practitioner, grounded in her own classroom action research. She was a high school and college principal but repeatedly returned to the classroom to keep growing her practice and her thinking. This morning, I read three academic articles about her as well as several speeches and essays from her 1892 collection, A Voice from the South (an incredible intersectional analysis of gender, race and class; highly erudite as well as highly readable), and her articles, “On Education” and “The Humor of Teaching.”
A framework built on the work of Dr. Cooper would first of all include rigorous intellectual development. As a teacher and principal of M Street High School in Washington, D.C., she developed and taught a curriculum of four years of Latin, modern languages, science, and math. Throughout her writings, she advocates for intellectual rigor:
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 given them the power to appreciate and make them righteous.“On Education”
Although she always emphasized the importance of learning practical skills and being able to earn a living, she rejected an education comprised of vocational training as advocated by Booker T. Washington and others in favor of a broad liberal arts education, even for students who intended to work. For Cooper, such a liberal arts education was vital to the development of an informed citizenry. Education is a universal human right, necessary for the functioning of democracy:
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 avocation their talent is needed.“On Education”
She also viewed intellectual development as a goal in itself, essential for people’s well-being and right living:
The aim of education for the human soul is to train aright, to give power and right direction to the intellect, the sensibilities, and the will.“On Education”
She wrote frequently of education’s purpose “to make life livable as well as to make a living in America today.”
In this, she distinguished herself from another important thinker on Black education, W.E.B. Du Bois, who also advocated for a classical education–but only for those who would become leaders. Cooper advocated for access to an education that emphasizes critical thinking for all.
She was an advocate of lifelong learning, and she exemplified that value personally and professionally. The last thirty years of her long educational career (Cooper lived to be 105 years old and didn’t retire until she was 84!!) were spent pioneering a community college model for working-class Black people that offered services as well as college courses in the day and evening. And she herself earned her Doctorate degree from the Sorbonne when she was 67 years old!!
A framework based on Cooper’s philosophy would emphasize culturally relevant and culturally sustaining curriculum. When she couldn’t find unbiased textbooks, she simply wrote her own curriculum to teach Black history and Black excellence to her students. She believed in the power of drama to teach and chose to write her Black-centered curriculum materials as plays.
Her pedagogy was intensely learner-centered; she argues for knowing our students, understanding their histories and unique needs, and developing the curriculum that they need. She argues for experiential learning and for the classroom as a community of learners, teacher included. She values student initiative and dialogic classrooms. She explicitly names the need for joy in teaching and learning.
She even has a critique of standardization and overtesting in “The Humor of Teaching”! All the way back in 1930, Anna Julia Cooper was warning about what happens when we standardize curriculum, make learning standards our sole purpose and focus, and then over-test and over-measure student learning!
Howard University’s Digital Howard collects what appears to be all of Anna Julia Cooper’s published writing, manuscripts, and addresses, and I intend to keep reading and learning and deepening my understanding of this teacher’s work and thinking.