Character Building  by Booker T. Washington

Chapter 31 Substance vs. Shadow

You are here for the purpose of getting an education. Now, one of the results of an education is to increase a person's wants. You take the ordinary person who lives on a plantation, and so long as that person is ignorant, he is content to live in a cabin with one room, in which he has a skillet, a bedstead -or an apology for one-a table, and a few chairs or stools. He is content if he has fat meat, corn bread and peas on the table to eat, and for clothing he is satisfied to wear jeans and osnaburg himself, and to have his wife wear a calico dress and a twenty-five cent hat.

But, as soon as that man becomes educated, he feels that he must have a house with at least two or three rooms in it, furnished with neat and substantial furniture. Instead of jeans and osnaburg for clothes, he wants decent woolen cloth, neat fitting shoes, and a white collar and a necktie, things which he never thought of wearing before he became educated. Sometimes he even thinks that he must have jewelry.

So you see the result of education is to increase a person's wants. Now, the crisis in that person's affairs comes when the question arises whether his education has increased his ability to supply his wants. Such ability, I claim, is one of the results of industrial education. By such an education as that, while we are getting culture along all the lines that in any degree tend to increase the wants of a, person, we are, in the meantime, getting skill to increase our ability to supply these wants. And, unless we have this ability, we will find, sooner or later, that instead of going forward we are going backward.

I think that the temptation for us, especially for those who are only half educated, is to try to get hold of a certain kind of shallow culture, instead of getting the substantial-instead of getting hold of real educa-tion, of property and material prosperity.

You who study history know how the Pilgrim Fathers, who landed at Plymouth Rock in the bleak winter of 1620, were willing to wear homespun clothes, and to be married in them, if necessary, and to have a wedding that in all would not cost more than four dollars, I suppose. On the other hand, when one of our boys wants to get married now, he must have a wedding that costs not less than one hundred and fifty dollars. His wife must have a dress with a long train, and he must have a Prince Albert, broadcloth coat that he either rents, or buys on the installment plan. They think that they must have a bevy of waiting bridesmaids, and there must be a line of hacks stand-ing on the outside of the church door that will cost him not less than twenty-five dollars. Then, after the ceremony, where do these people go to live? The chances are the young man who has been to all this expense for the sake of the show of it, takes his bride to live in a small cabin with only two rooms-sometimes only one room rented at that.

This is what I mean by getting the superficial culture before the dollars are made; grasping at the shadow instead of the substance. Now what we want to do here is to send out a set of young men and young women who will go into the communities where such mistakes as these are made, and show the people by example and by work how much better it is to get married for four dollars, and to pay as you go, than to get married for a hundred and fifty dollars, and then pay four dollars a month to live in a rented cabin. When I go to New York, or to any large city, there is nothing more discouraging than to see people of this very class I am speaking of, people who seek the superficial culture, the shadow, rather than the substantial dollars and education. If you stand for a few minutes on any of the fashionable streets in the Northern cities, you will see these elaborately dressed men, wearing five dollar hats on heads that at most are not worth more than fifty cents. This is the class of people who have got just enough education to make them want everything they see, but who have not got enough to make them able to get what they want unless they go beyond their means to do so.

A superficial education, too, makes us inclined to seek show in other things besides dress. We are inclined, for one thing, to seek to show off in the use of titles. I remember that once I was introduced to a company of about sixty men, and out of the whole number there were only six who were not doctors, professors, or colonels, or who did not have some title. I must say I thought more of the six who were just plain misters than I did of all the rest, for among the others there were some very hard-looking doctors and professors. An over desire for these things' shows a shallowness in us which makes us ridiculous. We want to stop making that kind of mistake. If you are a mister, encourage the people to call you by that title. If you are a minister and preach interesting and instructive sermons, people are going to be impressed by what you say and not by the title you bear. The title is the shadow; what you say is the substance.

When a person is simple, he is on the strong side. People not only have more respect for him, but he accomplishes more. I was once at a memorial meeting held in honor of a man who had done a great and useful work, not only for the race but for the school with which he had been connected. After about two hours of speechmaking, somebody took the platform and said that a collection ought to be taken up for the benefit of the school which this man had worked so hard for, to show the appreciation which those present felt for this man's services. After a good deal of talk, $6.65 was collected. Then the question was raised again as to what was going to be done with this money-just how it was to be donated to the school.

The meeting had passed a set of resolutions testifying to the high character of the man and the worth of his work. Somebody suggested that- these resolutions be engrossed and sent to the school. This was a big word, and the people liked the sound of it. Upon inquiry it was found that it would cost $6.00 to have the resolutions engrossed. It was voted to have this done, and it was done; when the resolutions would have done just as much good typewritten, at a cost of twenty-five cents. But the meeting paid out the $6.00, and sent the engrossed copy of the resolutions down to the school, along with the sixty-five cents left to be expended for the help of the school. That, it seemed to me, was another case of grasping the shadow instead of the substance. The engrossed resolutions were the shadow; the sixty-five cents were all that was left of the substance.

In all these matters we need speedy and effective reforms. We want you to go out into the world and use your influence toward securing these reforms. There are too many people in the world who give their whole lives to grasping at the shadow instead of the substance-grasping at a sham instead of real worth. We want you to teach by word and action simple, right and honest living.