the past in pop culture

Tag: Frederick Douglass

The Patron Saint of MOOCs

Carnegie, right, with James Bryce, 1st Viscoun...

Carnegie, right, with James Bryce, 1st Viscount Bryce. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

MOOCs are so of the moment, they barely seem to have a past. The coinage of the acronym dates to just 2008. (It stands for massive open online course, but the unfortunately bovine MOOC might also contain a subtle suggestion of a herd mentality and the ever-growing likelihood of a stampede.) Yet every movement needs a guiding light or heavenly advocate. Since MOOCs are a secular phenomenon, their acolytes have looked to historical figures to play the role of patron saint. To date, the front-runners include Ben Franklin, Andrew Carnegie, and Abraham Lincoln, American auto-didacts all.

The MOOC is an international phenomenon but like Silicon Valley from which much of the enabling technology has sprung, it remains an emphatically American way of thinking about education. If Ben Franklin is sometimes known as “the First American,” it has a lot to do with his up-by-the-bootstraps boyhood. Pulled out of school at age 10 to be indentured to his older brother’s print shop, Franklin spent his limited free time holed up in his room studying books that he borrowed or bought with the money he saved by becoming a vegetarian. He mastered the art of English composition in prose and verse by inventing ingenious exercises for himself using nothing more than a few editions of a popular publication. When he later ran away to Philadelphia with just a few coins in his pocket, these skills served him well as he was able to get in on the ground floor of the newspaper business in colonial America. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Franklin’s poor boy made good story has inspired generations of Americans. It’s the reason that Jack Hitt was able to write a very entertaining chapter in Bunch of Amateurs contrasting Franklin’s innovative, ahead of his time genius with John Adams’s boring old traditionalism. Sure, whatever, Adams helped out a little here and there with independence, the Revolution, and all that. But Franklin was a dropout and Adams actually graduated from Harvard so his accomplishments are hardly impressive. We all know that that these days the cool kids make a point of dropping out—Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg—or not even starting college—David Karp, founder of Tumblr. (If you’re interested, there are lots of “famous dropout” lists; there aren’t any for dropouts who didn’t do so well.) So Franklin’s got a good claim as patron of the MOOC revolution. Sure he founded an Ivy League school (Penn) but he also got together America’s first lending library—for a fee.

Andrew Carnegie went Franklin (whose Autobiography Carnegie adored) one better when he gave a great deal of his fortune to fund free public libraries. Carnegie, the child of a poor immigrant family who left school to start working at age 13, educated himself in the private library of one of his employers and wanted to give others the same chance that he had. This backstory makes Carnegie a likely candidate: MOOC developers like to highlight stories such as that of the poor, bright striver in a country like Mongolia who suddenly vaults into the big leagues via the miracle of MOOCs and is applying to MIT and Berkeley. (Oddly, Thomas Friedman, who recounts this anecdote, seems to have missed the contradiction here in which MOOCs are supposed to be reasonable substitutes for a quality education.) And Carnegie knew a thing or two about economies of scale. His recipe for beating the competition in the steel industry remains a classic:

Two pounds of iron-stone purchased on the shores of Lake Superior and transported to Pittsburgh. Two pounds of coal mined in Connellsville and manufactured into coke and brought to Pittsburgh. One-half pound of limestone mined east of the Alleghenies and brought to Pittsburgh. A little manganese ore mined in Virginia and brought to Pittsburgh. And these four and one half pounds of material manufactured into one pound of solid steel and sold for one cent. That’s all that need be said about the steel business.

The MOOC business model, on the other hand, remains a bit uncertain. It involves economies of scale, and putting together lots of the component parts of different industries, but it’s not quite clear to everyone just yet where the money-making part is going to come in. So far, the best indication of the future of profit making in MOOCs is the recent announcement that a series of public universities have partnered up with Coursera to introduce a MOOC model for scaling up large enrollment courses. On a per-student basis, the costs, compared to a traditional teacher-taught course, are very competitive:

In a typical case, the company would charge the university a flat fee of $3,000 for “course development.” After that, Coursera would charge a per-student fee that would decrease as more students registered for the course. The first 500 students would cost the university $25 per student; the next 500 would cost $15 per student; the university would pay the company $8 for each student beyond that.

Carnegie may have the jump on Franklin after all. Abe Lincoln who, according to legend, studied by firelight and scratched out his lessons on the back of a dirty shovel, is probably running a distant third. Still, Lincoln started out with even less schooling than either Franklin or Carnegie. And if Lincoln didn’t quite teach himself to read, as some versions of the myth have it, he made up for his lack of opportunities by sheer tenaciousness. This is a pretty good qualification for patron saint of MOOCs: it looks like 90 percent of those who start them fail to finish.

Such statistics have made some a little cynical about whether the much-ballyhooed “disruption” that the MOOC-ification of higher ed promises to deliver is really the promised land after all. Because when the odds are stacked against you, it takes more than the average amount of drive to succeed. It’s funny that Frederick Douglass isn’t in the running for patron saint of MOOCs, but maybe it has something to do with the uncomfortable reminder of how unreasonably high the bar is for some people. The heart of Douglass’s Narrative recounts his struggle to learn to read and write while an enslaved boy in Baltimore. Since it was illegal to teach slaves, Douglass bartered bread for letters with white street urchins who knew how to make out a word or two. He copied the letters he saw ship’s carpenters use to mark boards. He fed his masters’ paranoia about slave rebellion by sneaking off with newspapers left lying around the house. And he became ferociously literate. So much so that the best tack pro-slavery critics had of his Narrative was to claim that he could not possibly have written it. This is precisely the kind of thing that MOOC defenders claim that the new technology would eliminate. MOOCs are a perfect meritocracy since they promise to extend educational access to all the world. The meritocratic claim that a level playing field justifies the outcome of ultimate inequality means that original inequality is not a problem. As long as opportunities are available, then effort is all that is required to succeed.

This is an old argument in American society and it explains our deep love for the stories of self-made men. If the poor boy can become a robber baron, then robber barons must not be so bad. After all, they have made a habit of endowing educational endeavors with their wealth. This was true of Carnegie and is now true of the Gates Foundation and the Walton Foundation, among others. Speaking of which: maybe Sam Walton is the real patron saint of MOOCs. True, he pursued a traditional education but his rise to become the worldwide king of big box retail from a single storefront in Bentonville, Arkansas is surely an American Dream. Mohammad H. Qayoumi, the president of San Jose State University (an early adopter of MOOCs as replacements for courses taught in-house), thinks that higher ed can learn a lot from Walmart. The retail chain employs massive economies of scale to be able to cut costs to the bone and offer shoppers truly remarkable savings. Walmart, at least back in the day, was pretty much the poster child for disruptive innovation, much like MOOC providers seek to become. The Walmart-ization of higher ed. What could possibly be bad about that?

On the Good Ship Frederick Douglass

Building the SS Frederick Douglass. Smiling from the porthole is rivet heater Willie Smith. (Photograph by Roger Smith, Office of War Information, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Building the SS Frederick Douglass. Smiling from the porthole is rivet heater Willie Smith. (Photograph by Roger Smith, Office of War Information, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

[Weekly Writing Challenge: Truth is Stranger than Fiction

“For this challenge, we want to see a photo of someone looking truly happy. . . Then we want to know why: what’s going on in the photo? . . . We’re sure you could invent Hollywood mega-hit-worthy explanations for your subject’s happiness . . . but this week, we’d rather know what’s real.”]

This year’s best picture nominees, and ultimately the winner of that award, took on some big topics in American history: U.S. involvement overseas (Argo and Zero Dark Thirty) and slavery (Lincoln and Django Unchained). To varying degrees, each of these four films dealt in the truth but made it into movies their makers called fiction. Argo underplayed the Canadians and made up some drama. Torture didn’t quite work out the way ZDT played it. Django seemed almost purely fantastical but check out the true story of Dangerfield Newby and think again. And Lincoln? Lincoln left out Douglass making the movie a little narrower than it ought to have been.

In truth, Frederick Douglass looms too large to be left out. In this photo taken by Roger Smith for the Office of War Information, we see a worker identified as Willie Smith. Smith smiles delightedly out of a porthole in the dock house of a ship named after Douglass. The time is May, 1943. The location is the Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyard in Baltimore, Maryland. The photograph’s original caption informs us that this shipyard is roughly where Douglass, while still a slave in the 1830s, was sent to work by his master to earn extra money working as a caulker. Douglass recounts in his Narrative that as a child of twelve, he had learned to write partly by watching ship’s carpenters at the Baltimore yards mark boards with letters for different sides of the ship. Later, when Douglass returned to Baltimore as a young man (after having had a knock-down, drag out fight with a slave breaker who ended up being the one broken), he was apprenticed out to the shipyard. He was there for months until one day the white apprentice carpenters started objecting to working with black men and set upon him. Tarantino might take note of Douglass’s description of the fight:

“[They] came upon me, armed with sticks, stones, and heavy handspikes. One came in front with a half brick. There was one at each side of me, and one behind me. While I was attending to those in front, and on either side, the one behind ran up with the handspike, and struck me a heavy blow upon the head. It stunned me. I fell, and with this they all ran upon me, and fell to beating me with their fists. I let them lay on for a while, gathering strength. In an instant, I gave a sudden surge, and rose to my hands and knees. Just as I did that, one of their number gave me, with his heavy boot, a powerful kick in the left eye. My eyeball seemed to have burst. When they saw my eye closed, and badly swollen, they left me. With this I seized the handspike, and for a time pursued them. But here the carpenters interfered, and I thought I might as well give it up. It was impossible to stand my hand against so many. . .”

Although Douglass couldn’t return to work there, his master later sent him out to another yard where he learned to caulk the hulls of ships. When he finally escaped to freedom in Massachusetts, he tried to get similar work in the shipyards of Nantucket, only to find that the white workers there also excluded free black men from such skilled professions. (Back in Baltimore, free black workers formed a Caulkers Union in 1838 and used it to insist on being paid fair wages. They succeeded until 1865,when white workers went on strike to force the shipyard owners to fire the black men.)

If we fast forward to the time of the photograph of riveter Willie Smith, we can start to understand some of the reasons for his joy. Slavery, of course, had long since ended, due in no small part to the leadership of individuals like Douglass. Job discrimination persisted, however, even as the nation mobilized in support of a war against fascism. Only the threat of a full scale march on Washington by A. Philip Randolph in 1941 finally convinced President Franklin Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 8802 that prohibited discrimination based on race, creed, color, or national origin in the defense industries. But black workers still faced segregation both in the military and on the home front. Workers at the Bethlehem Fairfield Shipyards remained segregated through the end of the war. Another photograph from the Office of War Information attests to how far this went:

A Drinking Fountain, Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyards (Photo by Arthur Siegel, Office of War Information, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

A Drinking Fountain, Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyards (Photo by Arthur Siegel, Office of War Information, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Yep, white only drinking fountains for workers building ships for the United States government in Maryland–hardly the deep South.

Still Willie Smith smiles. We might take a minute to consider who he’s smiling at. The photographer is Roger Smith, probably no relation to Willie. Roger Smith worked for the Negro News Division of the Office of War Information. Although a prolific photographer who extensively documented African American participation in the war effort, he remains very little known. The single best measure of this is probably the fact that of the twelve Roger Smiths listed on Wikipedia, as of this writing he is not one of them. What is known is that his work was marginalized and that as a black photographer, he mostly got assigned to photograph black subjects.

He did so brilliantly. He is especially notable for having photographed the country’s first black Marines.

"... Although a dress uniform is not a part of the regular equipment, most of the Negro Marines spend $54 out of their pay for what is generally considered the snappiest uniform in the armed services... Photo shows a group of the Negro volunteers in their dress uniforms." Ca. May 1943. Roger Smith. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

“… Although a dress uniform is not a part of the regular equipment, most of the Negro Marines spend $54 out of their pay for what is generally considered the snappiest uniform in the armed services… Photo shows a group of the Negro volunteers in their dress uniforms.” Ca. May 1943. Roger Smith. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

These men are not smiling, but surely that was because this formal photograph was intended to show their seriousness of purpose. It might also have been because their battles still lay ahead. The Marines were the last branch of the United States military to allow African Americans to enlist, and until 1949, they were housed at a segregated camp called Montford Point. In 2012, the surviving members of the group (known informally as the Montford Point Marines) were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the country’s highest civilian honor, in recognition of the discrimination they had faced—including having been excluded from combat roles. However overdue, Frederick Douglass might have smiled. At the start of Lincoln, the black soldiers who we see fighting in the film’s only combat sequence took part in the Civil War thanks in large measure to Douglass’s relentless advocacy to the Lincoln administration. This didn’t make it into the film, but it happened.

And so Willie Smith, who played the smallest of parts in the largest of wars, smiles, too. He knows what his photograph means.

(Postscript: The ship Smith helped to build, the SS Frederick Douglass, was a freighter. Perhaps this is unsurprising given that African American soldiers were generally assigned to support roles rather than combat during World Wars I and II. The ship and its mixed race crew was under the command of Captain Adrian Richardson, only the second black man appointed to such a position during the war. A German U-boat sank the Douglass on September 20, 1943 as part of a larger assault on the New York bound convoy of U.S. warships. A British ship rescued the Douglass’s entire crew, plus “one female stowaway.” This is also a true story.)

A Valentine for Frederick Douglass

Daguerreotype of Frederick Douglass

Daguerreotype of Frederick Douglass (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As of this writing, Frederick Douglass still does not appear in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Spielberg has gotten a lot of grief for this, as has his screenwriter Tony Kushner who started with a script that included Douglass but then left him out. The black characters who did make it into the film are mostly kindly, grateful, and token. Sure, there’s one angry black man at the start who’s intent on holding Mr. Lincoln accountable, but he isn’t Frederick Douglass and the other black soldier who is with him keeps laughing at Lincoln’s jokes. Spielberg’s Lincoln is in good company at this year’s Oscars though—Argo and Zero Dark Thirty have also been raked over the historical accuracy coals for what they left in, left out, or just plain made up. And in far off Chile, film director Pablo Larrain recently invoked Spielberg in defense of his Oscar nominated movie No in which a complicated social movement that led to a national referendum to oust dictator Augusto Pinochet is told primarily as the story of a single man and his ad campaign. Worse, many of the people who were actually involved are very much among the living and not all have had kind words for the film.

Frederick Douglass, we hope, is resting in peace. And since he will not be on screen this year and nor will any actor portraying him be on the red carpet at the Oscars next week, let’s remember him on this his birthday. Douglass chose Valentine’s Day to celebrate the day of his birth because his mother, who he saw only a handful of times during his childhood in slavery, called him her “little valentine.” He didn’t know his own birth date because, as he writes in his autobiography, no slave ever did. Even as a child he wondered why he was deprived of this privilege. It’s fitting that Douglass’s chosen birthday falls between that of Lincoln and Washington. There is a considerable distance between the two on the question of slavery and Douglass as much as anyone and more than most helped to move the country in the right direction. If this isn’t in the movie, well, Hollywood history has always left a lot on the cutting room floor and Spielberg is not a documentarian. Douglass is not in Lincoln. So here’s a thought: how about next year a movie titled Douglass for Best Picture?

%d bloggers like this: