Professor Lucia Lachmayr
21 May 2013
Education Denied: a Recipe to Control Human Beings
In the 1940s, George Orwell warned “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past” (Orwell 30). In the 1990s a band called Rage Against the Machine, the name itself referring to a people’s movement to fight against control (corporation, government or otherwise) used this mantra in their song “Testify,” a warning to not silently endure injustice (Rage Against the Machine). This warning is not only relevant to the 20th century, but has been applicable since human beings started forming structures of power to control and oppress one another. This can vividly be seen during the times of slavery in the United States when blacks were enslaved for two and a half centuries. In Frederick Douglass’s novel Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Douglass reveals how this long and brutal control of human beings was partly accomplished through control over literacy. The control and limitations over reading and writing during slavery sought to make slaves like Douglass ignorant, powerless, and therefore more easily controlled, and this control over literacy and education is still happening in the world today.
In his narrative, Douglass exposes how being denied education was one of the main tactics used to keep so many blacks trapped within generations of enslavement. Douglass lived in Baltimore for 7 years as a house slave and was forbidden by his masters Mr. and Mrs. Hugh to read or write. Mrs. Hugh became furious if she caught Douglass reading as she understood that keeping him illiterate and ignorant was her only way to maintain power over him, “She was an apt woman; and a little
experience soon demonstrated, to her satisfaction, that education and slavery were incompatible with each other” (82). Mr. and Mrs. Hugh were not the only slave-owners to realize that educated people are harder to subjugate, and that they could not indefinitely sustain control over other human beings solely through physical coercion. Many slave states passed laws making it illegal to teach slaves to read and write as seen in this typical law in North Carolina:
AN ACT TO PREVENT ALL PERSONS FROM TEACHING SLAVES TO READ OR WRITE, THE USE OF FIGURES EXCEPTED. Whereas the teaching of slaves to read and write, has a tendency to excite dis-satisfaction in their minds, and to produce insurrection and rebellion, to the manifest injury of the citizens of this State: Therefore, be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of North Carolina, and it is hereby enacted by the authority of the same, that any free person, who shall hereafter teach, or attempt to teach, any slave within the State to read or write, the use of figures excepted, or shall give or sell to such slave or slaves any books or pamphlets, shall be liable to indictment in any court of record in this State having jurisdiction thereof. ("Slaves Are Prohibited to Read and Write by Law")
The law then lists the punishments and for a white person it was a hefty fine and possible imprisonment and for a free person of color they could be fined, imprisoned or whipped “not exceeding thirty nine lashes, nor less than twenty lashes” ("Slaves Are Prohibited to Read and Write by Law"). The fear behind passing laws such as these reveals the certain knowledge that reading and writing can indeed lead to “insurrection and rebellion.” Revolution comes when one can read and understand laws that apply to and protect one group and yet arbitrarily exclude another. Rebellion comes when people, through reading, can gain a larger historical perspective and know what is fair, just and reasonable and what is not. Insurrection comes when people can use the written word to communicate with and thereby assemble the masses. This shows how physical force alone cannot control human beings for long. The frightening truth that slave-owners and others throughout history have understood is that to
fully control another person, you must limit their perceptions, their understanding of the world, and the influence of others—in essence you must also control their mind.
After secretly learning to read and write on his own, Douglass discovered that freeing his mind led to anguished torment as he was unable to free himself from the entrenched institutions of slavery, but change at least was set in motion. Initially, being awakened to the stark realities of his condition served to plunge Douglass into despair: “As I read and contemplated the subject, behold! that very discontentment which Master Hugh had predicted would follow my learning to read had already come, to torment and sting my soul to unutterable anguish” (84). Once Douglass’s eyes were opened, he invariably suffered: “… I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out. In moments of agony, I envied my fellow-slaves for their stupidity” (84). So is ignorance bliss? The answer for us to live in a fair and decent world has to be no, never. To be ignorant allows others not only to make choices for you but to limit your choices without you even realizing it. Not knowing the factors and people who shape your life, enables those in power to act in their own self-interest and have no accountability when doing so. It also makes people unable to recognize when they are victimized by unjust situations, and if you cannot see the problem, then you can never demand change. After Douglass understood the evils of slavery, he suffered initially and even entertained thoughts of suicide, but later he escaped to the north and became an influential leader in the abolitionist movement and spent the remainder of his life fighting for the equality and rights of blacks as well as women.
Unfortunately, when slavery was abolished in 1865, that did not end the practice of denying certain groups of people an education in order to control them, but it also did not end people’s ability to go against societal norms, educate themselves, and fight for change. Muktar Mai in her memoir In the Name of Honor published in 2006, tells her story of growing up in a small village in Pakistan where girls were not educated. In 2002, a more powerful clan wanted to assert its power so without evidence, they
accused her brother of having sexual relations with an older woman in another clan. As a result, Mai, as his oldest sister, was sentenced to be publically gang raped by six men in a stable with 100 of her fellow villagers outside. Mai was then expected to follow custom and commit suicide, but instead she
went to the police and testified against her attackers. Because she could not read or write, the officers wrote down her account but altered what she said to absolve her attackers of guilt, so when her case went to court, she lost. After that, she dedicated herself to learn to read and write so she could document her own story and navigate the complexities of the legal system. As Mai suffered death threats and battled a daunting and biased legal system, a fellow activist told her:
It doesn’t matter what women think, because they are not allowed to think at all! They’re not allowed to learn to read and write, to find out how the world aroundthem works. That’s why illiterate women cannot defend themselves: they know nothing about their rights, and words are put into their mouths to sabotage theirrevolt. But we support you! Just have courage. (46)
After nearly 10 years of her case being tried in various courts and reaching all the way to the Supreme Court, sadly all but one of the men were acquitted. The president of Pakistan has since admitted to restricting Mai’s movements as the publicity her case receives puts a bad light on Pakistan, and with her attackers free and part of a very powerful clan, her life remains in danger to this day. In spite of all this, Mai still fights. She remains an outspoken advocate for women’s rights, she is still pressing a retrial of her attackers, she continues to run the organization she started Mukhtar Mai Women's Welfare
Organization (MMWWO), and even with many attempts to close it, she still runs a school she established in her village to educate girls. With literacy came a more confident and determined Mai and through literacy she has been able to rescue many abused women, educate scores of young girls, and reach out beyond her community and gain international recognition and support.
Slavery might feel very distant time wise and Pakistan might feel very far off geographically, but the issue of people being denied literacy and education is not so far removed. People are being
denied education right here and right now in the United States as well, so we must all continue to be vigilant about Orwell’s warning: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past” (Orwell 30). Those who write our history, who write our textbooks, who write our news, who write our laws, write us. In the United States, unfortunately the quality of education one receives is based on income and property taxes so those living in affluent neighborhoods get a good education but those who do not, are destined to be controlled by a wealthy elite: “Children in one set of schools are educated to be governors; children in the other set of schools are trained for being governed” (Kozol 176). Jonathan Kozol in his book Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s School documented the inequalities in education across the U.S. in inner-city schools. He repeatedly documented the high dropout rates in these schools that are grossly underfunded, underequipped, and understaffed. We cannot call ourselves a true democracy if the many are ruled by the few. We need to take a lesson from Frederick Douglass and Muktar Mai and use our own literacy skills to call out injustice and mobilize people to address it, be it large scale or small: blogging, writing letters to our political representatives, reading investigative books and articles, emailing our friends, reposting articles on Facebook. Ignorance leads to blind passivity and loss of choice. Even small efforts are empowering and can effect great change.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. New York,
NY: Penguin Books, 1982. 81-85. Print.
Kozol, Jonathan. Savage Inequalities: Children in America's School. New York, NY: Harper
Perennial, 1991. 176. Print.
Mai, Muktar. In the Name of Honor. New York, NY: Washington Square Press, 2006. 46-165. Print
Orwell, George. 1984. New York, NY: Plume-Harcourt Brace, 1983. 30. Print.
Rage Against the Machine, "Testify Lyrics." Metrolyrics. CBS Interactive Music Group, 2 Nov
1999. Web. 19 Jul 2013. <www.metrolyrics.com/testify-l...e-machine.html>.
"Slaves Are Prohibited to Read and Write by Law." History is a Weapon. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Jul 2013