Character Building  by Booker T. Washington

Chapter 9 Using Their Right Name

A FEW evenings ago I talked with you about the importance of learning to be simple, humble and child-like before going out into the world. You should remain in school until you get to the point where you feel that you do not know anything, where you feel that you are willing to learn from anyone who can teach you.

Unfortunately there are many things here in the South which tends to lead away from this simplicity to which I have referred. There is a great inclination to make things appear what they are not. For example: take the schools. There is a great tendency to call schools by names which do not belong to them, and which do not correctly represent that which in reality exists. You will find the habit growing more prevalent every year, I fear, of calling a school a university, or a college, or an academy, or a high-school. In fact we seldom hear of a plain, common, public or graded school.

We do ourselves no good when we yield to that temptation. If a school is a public school, call it one; but do not think that we gain anything by calling a little country school, with two or three rooms and one or two teachers, where some of the students are studying the alpha-bet, a university. And still this is too often done throughout the South, as you know. No respect or confidence is gained by the practice, but, on the contrary, sensible people get disgusted with such false pretences. When you go out into the world and meet with such cases as this, try to make the people see that it is a great deal better to call their small public school by a name which truly represents it, than to call it a high-school or an academy. I do not by any means intend to say that schools do not have the right to aspire to become high-schools and colleges. What I mean to say is that it is hurtful to the race to get into the habit of calling every little institution of learning that is opened, a college or a univer-sity. It weakens us and prevents us from getting a solid, sure founda-tion.

Again, we make the same mistake when we call every preacher or person who stands in a pulpit to read from it, "Doctor," whether or not that degree has been conferred upon him. Sensible people get tired of that kind of thing. The degree of Doctor of Divinity was once held in the highest esteem, and was conferred only upon those ministers who had really become entitled to it because of some original research or other work of high scholarship. Among highly educated people this rule holds still. But to-day, especially in the South, many a little institution that opens its doors and calls itself a college or a university, is beginning to confer degrees, and make doctors of divinity of persons who are unwor-thy of degrees. And sometimes, should these persons fail to get an insti-tution to confer a degree on them, they confer it on themselves! The habit is getting to be so common that in little towns the ministers are calling themselves Doctors. One pastor will meet another and say, "Good morning, Doctor," and the other, wishing to be as polite as his friend, will say, "How are you, Doctor?" and so it goes on, until both begin to believe they really are Doctors. Now this practice is not only ridiculous, but it is very hurtful to us as a race, and it should be discouraged.

Much the same criticism may be made of many of those who teach. A person who teaches a little country school, perhaps in a brush arbor, is called "Professor." Every person who leads a string band is called "Professor." I was in a small town not long ago, and I heard the people speaking of some one as "the professor." I was anxious to know who the professor was. So I waited a few minutes, and finally the professor came up, and I recognized him as a member of one of our preparatory classes. Now, don't suffer the world to put you in this silly, ridiculous posi-tion. If people attempt to call you "Professor," or by any other title that is not yours, tell them that you are not a professor, that you are a simple mister. That is a good enough title for anyone. We have the same right to become professors as any other people, when we occupy positions which entitle us to that name, but we drag that title, which ought to be a badge of scholarship, down into the mud and mire when we allow it to be misapplied.

We carry a similar kind of deception into our school work when, in the essays which we read and the orations which we deliver, we simply rehearse matter a great deal of which has been copied from some one else. Go into almost any church where there is one of the doctors of divinity to whom I have referred, and you will hear sermons copied out of books and pamphlets. The essays, the orations, the sermons that are not the productions of the people who pretend to write them, all come from this false foundation.

Then there is another error to which I wish to call your attention. In many parts of the South, especially in the cities and towns, there are excellent public schools, well equipped in every way with apparatus and material, and provided with good, competent teachers, but in some cases these schools are crippled by reason of the fact that there are little denom-inational schools which deprive the public schools of their rightful at-tendance. If the school can't be in the church of some particular denomination, it must be near it. In the average town there may be the denominational school of the United Methodist Episcopal church, of the Zion church, of the Baptist church, of the Wesleyan Methodist church, and so on, all in different parts of the town. Instead of support-ing one public school, provided at the expense of the town or city, there exists this little, narrow denominational spirit, which is robbing these innocent children of their education. We want to say to such people as these, people who are content so to deprive their children, and have them taught by some second-rate teacher, that they are wrong. We want you to let the people know that the great public-school system of America is the nation's greatest glory, and that we do not help matters when we attempt to tear down the public school. Of course it is the right and the duty of every denomination to erect its own theological seminaries and its colleges, where the special tenets of that denomination are taught to those who are preparing for its pulpit; but no one has a right to let this denominational spirit defeat the work of a public school to which all should be free to go.

I have in mind a place where the colored people have an excellent school, equal to that of the whites. I went through the building and found it supplied with unproved apparatus and capable teachers, and saw that first-class work was done there. Later, I was taken about a mile outside the city, where there was a school with all incapable teachers, and some sixty or seventy pupils being poorly taught. Here was a third-rate teacher in a third-rate building, poor work, and the children suffering for lack of proper instruction. Why? This was simply because the people wanted a school of their own denomination in that part of the city.

Now you want to cultivate courage, and see to it that you are brave enough to condemn these wrongs and to show the people the mistakes which they make in these matters.

I mention all these things because they hinder us from getting a solid foundation. They hinder us, further, in that in many cases they prevent us from getting the right power of leadership in teaching, in the work of the ministry, and in many other respects. Wherever you go, then, make up your minds that you are going to make your influence felt in favor of better prepared teachers and preachers-in better prepara-tion of all those who stand for leaders of the people. Just in proportion as you set your lives right in this matter, will the masses of the race be inclined to follow you.