Skip to content

Instantly share code, notes, and snippets.

What would you like to do?
The Path to Freedom - by Carl Sagan & Ann Druyan

The Path to Freedom

We must not believe the many, who say that only free people ought to be educated, but we should rather believe the philosophers who say that only the educated are free. – Epictetus, Roman philosopher and former slave, Discourses

Frederick Bailey was a slave. As a boy in Maryland in the 1820s, he had no mother or father to look after him. ('It is a common custom,' he later wrote, 'to part children from their mothers . . . before the child has reached its twelfth month.') He was one of countless millions of slave children whose realistic prospects for a hopeful life were nil.

What Bailey witnessed and experienced in his growing up marked him forever: 'I have often been awakened at the dawn of the day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom [the overseer] used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood . . . From the rising till the going down of the sun he was cursing, raving, cutting, and slashing among the slaves of the field . . . He seemed to take pleasure in manifesting his fiend- ish barbarity.'

The slaves had drummed into them, from plantation and pulpit alike, from courthouse and statehouse, the notion that they were hereditary inferiors, that God intended them for their misery. The Holy Bible, as countless passages confirmed, condoned slavery. In these ways the 'peculiar institution' maintained itself despite its monstrous nature - something even its practitioners must have glimpsed.

There was a most revealing rule: slaves were to remain illiter- ate. In the antebellum South, whites who taught a slave to read were severely punished. '[To] make a contented slave,' Bailey later wrote, 'it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason.' This is why the slaveholders must control what slaves hear and see and think. This is why reading and critical thinking are dangerous, indeed subver- sive, in an unjust society.

So now picture Frederick Bailey in 1828 - a 10-year-old African-American child, enslaved, with no legal rights of any kind, long since torn from his mother's arms, sold away from the tattered remnants of his extended family as if he were a calf or a pony, conveyed to an unknown household in the strange city of Baltimore, and condemned to a life of drudgery with no prospect of reprieve.

Bailey was sent to work for Capt Hugh Auld and his wife, Sophia, moving from plantation to urban bustle, from field work to housework. In this new environment, he came every day upon letters, books and people who could read. He discovered what he called 'this mystery' of reading: there was a connection between the letters on the page and the movement of the reader's lips, a nearly one-to-one correlation between the black squiggles and the sounds uttered. Surreptitiously, he studied from young Tommy Auld's Webster's Spelling Book. He memorized the letters of the alphabet. He tried to under- stand the sounds they stood for. Eventually, he asked Sophia Auld to help him learn. Impressed with the intelligence and dedication of the boy, and perhaps ignorant of the prohibitions, she complied.

By the time Frederick was spelling words of three and four letters, Captain Auld discovered what was going on. Furious, he ordered Sophia to stop. In Frederick's presence he explained:

A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master - to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now, if you teach that nigger how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave.

Auld chastised Sophia in this way as if Frederick Bailey were not there in the room with them, or as if he were a block of wood.

But Auld had revealed to Bailey the great secret: 'I now understood . . . the white man's power to enslave the black man. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.'

Without further help from the now reticent and intimidated Sophia Auld, Frederick found ways to continue learning how to read, including buttonholing white schoolchildren on the streets. Then he began teaching his fellow slaves: 'Their minds had been starved . . . They had been shut up in mental darkness. I taught them, because it was the delight of my soul.'

With his knowledge of reading playing a key role in his escape, Bailey fled to New England, where slavery was illegal and black people were free. He changed his name to Frederick Douglass (after a character in Walter Scott's The Lady of the Lake), eluded the bounty hunters who tracked down escaped slaves, and became one of the greatest orators, writers and political leaders in American history. All his life, he understood that literacy had been the way out.

For 99 per cent of the tenure of humans on earth, nobody could read or write. The great invention had not yet been made. Except for first-hand experience, almost everything we knew was passed on by word of mouth. As in the game of 'Chinese Whispers', over tens and hundreds of generations, information would slowly be distorted and lost.

Books changed all that. Books, purchasable at low cost, permit us to interrogate the past with high accuracy; to tap the wisdom of our species; to understand the point of view of others, and not just those in power; to contemplate - with the best teachers - the insights, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, drawn from the entire planet and from all of our history. They allow people long dead to talk inside our heads. Books can accompany us everywhere. Books are patient where we are slow to understand, allow us to go over the hard parts as many times as we wish, and are never critical of our lapses. Books are key to understanding the world and participating in a democratic society.

By some standards, African-Americans have made enormous strides in literacy since Emancipation. In 1860, it is estimated, only about five per cent of African-Americans could read and write. By 1890, 39 per cent were judged literate by the US census; and by 1969, 96 per cent. Between 1940 and 1992, the fraction of African-Americans who had completed high school soared from seven per cent to 82 per cent. But fair questions can be asked about the quality of that education, and the standards of literacy tested. These questions apply to every ethnic group.

A national survey done for the US Department of Education paints a picture of a country with more than 40 million barely literate adults. Other estimates are much worse. The literacy of young adults has slipped dramatically in the last decade. Only three to four per cent of the population scores at the highest of five reading levels (essentially everybody in this group has gone to college). The vast majority have no idea how bad their reading is.

Only four per cent of those at the highest reading level are in poverty, but 43 per cent of those at the lowest reading level are. Although it's not the only factor, of course, in general the better you read, the more you make - an average of about $12,000 a year at the lowest of these reading levels, and about $34,000 a year at the highest. It looks to be a necessary if not a sufficient condition for making money. And you're much more likely to be in prison if you're illiterate or barely literate. (In evaluating these facts, we must be careful not to improperly deduce causation from correla- tion.)

Also, marginally literate poorer people tend not to understand ballot initiatives that might help them and their children, and in stunningly disproportionate numbers fail to vote at all. This works to undermine democracy at its roots.

If Frederick Douglass as an enslaved child could teach himself into literacy and greatness, why should anyone in our more enlightened day and age remain unable to read? Well, it's not that simple, in part because few of us are as brilliant and courageous as Frederick Douglass, but for other important reasons as well.

If you grow up in a household where there are books, where you are read to, where parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins read for their own pleasure, naturally you learn to read. If no one close to you takes joy in reading, where is the evidence that it's worth the effort? If the quality of education available to you is inadequate, if you're taught rote memorization rather than how to think, if the content of what you're first given to read comes from a nearly alien culture, literacy can be a rocky road.

You have to internalize, so they're second nature, dozens of upper- and lower-case letters, symbols and punctuation marks; memorize thousands of dumb spellings on a word-by-word basis; and conform to a range of rigid and arbitrary rules of grammar. If you're preoccupied by the absence of basic family support or dropped into a roiling sea of anger, neglect, exploitation, danger and self-hatred, you might well conclude that reading takes too much work and just isn't worth the trouble. If you're repeatedly given the message that you're too stupid to learn (or, the functional equivalent, too cool to learn), and if there's no one there to contradict it, you might very well buy this pernicious advice. There are always some children - like Frederick Bailey - who beat the odds. Too many don't.

But, beyond all this, there's a particularly insidious way in which, if you're poor, you may have another strike against you in your effort to read - and even to think.

Ann Druyan and I come from families that knew grinding poverty. But our parents were passionate readers. One of our grandmothers learned to read because her father, a subsistence farmer, traded a sack of onions to an itinerant teacher. She read for the next hundred years. Our parents had personal hygiene and the germ theory of disease drummed into them by the New York Public Schools. They followed prescriptions on childhood nutrition recommended by the US Department of Agriculture as if they had been handed down from Mount Sinai. Our government book on children's health had been repeatedly taped together as its pages fell out. The corners were tattered. Key advice was underlined. It was consulted in every medical crisis. For a while, my parents gave up smoking - one of the few pleasures available to them in the Depression years - so that their infant could have vitamin and mineral supplements. Ann and I were very lucky.

Recent research shows that many children without enough to eat wind up with diminished capacity to understand and learn ('cognitive impairment'). Children don't have to be starving for this to happen. Even mild undernourishment, the kind most common among poor people in America, can do it. This can happen before the baby is born (if the mother isn't eating enough), in infancy or in childhood. When there isn't enough food, the body has to decide how to invest the limited foodstuffs available. Survival comes first. Growth comes second. In this nutritional triage, the body seems obliged to rank learning last. Better to be stupid and alive, it judges, than smart and dead.

Instead of showing an enthusiasm, a zest for learning as most healthy youngsters do, the undernourished child becomes bored, apathetic, unresponsive. More severe malnutrition leads to lower birth weights and, in its most extreme forms, smaller brains. However, even a child who looks perfectly healthy but has not enough iron, say, suffers an immediate decline in the ability to concentrate. Iron-deficiency anaemia may affect as much as a quarter of all low-income children in America; it attacks the child's attention span and memory, and may have consequences reaching well into adulthood.

What once was considered relatively mild undernutrition is now understood to be potentially associated with lifelong cognitive impairment. Children who are undernourished even on a short- term basis have a diminished capacity to learn. And millions of American children go hungry every week. Lead poisoning, which is endemic in inner cities, also causes serious learning deficits. By many criteria, the prevalence of poverty in America has been steadily increasing since the early 1980s. Almost a quarter of American children now live in poverty - the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world. According to one estimate, between 1980 and 1985 alone more American infants and children died of preventable disease, malnutrition and other consequences of dire poverty than all American battle deaths during the Vietnam War.

Some programmes wisely instituted on the Federal or state level in America deal with malnutrition. The Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), school breakfast and lunch programmes, the Summer Food Service Program - all have been shown to work, although they do not get to all the people who need them. So rich a country is well able to provide enough food for all its children.

Some deleterious effects of undernutrition can be undone; iron-repletion therapy, for example, can repair some conse- quences of iron-deficiency anaemia. But not all of the damage is reversible. Dyslexia - various disorders that impair reading skills - may affect fifteen per cent of us or more, rich and poor alike. Its causes (whether biological, psychological or environmental) are often undetermined. But methods now exist to help many with dyslexia to learn to read.

No one should be unable to learn to read because education is unavailable. But there are many schools in America in which reading is taught as a tedious and reluctant excursion into the hieroglyphics of an unknown civilization, and many classrooms in which not a single book can be found. Sadly, the demand for adult literacy classes far outweighs the supply. High-quality early educa- tion programmes such as Head Start can be enormously successful in preparing children for reading. But Head Start reaches only a third to a quarter of eligible pre-schoolers, many of its pro- grammes have been enfeebled by cuts in funding, and it and the nutrition programmes mentioned are under renewed Congres- sional attack as I write.

Head Start is criticized in a 1994 book called The Bell Curve by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray. Their argument has been characterized by Gerald Coles of the University of Rochester:

First, inadequately fund a program for poor children, then deny whatever success is achieved in the face of over- whelming obstacles, and finally conclude that the program must be eliminated because the children are intellectually inferior.

The book, which received surprisingly respectful attention from the media, concludes that there is an irreducible hereditary gap between blacks and whites - about 10 or 15 points on IQ tests. In a review, the psychologist Leon J. Kamin concludes that '[t]he authors repeatedly fail to distinguish between correlation and causation' - one of the fallacies of our baloney detection kit.

The National Center for Family Literacy, based in Louisville, Kentucky, has been implementing programmes aimed at low- income families to teach both children and their parents to read. It works like this: the child, 3 to 4 years old, attends school three days a week along with a parent, or possibly a grandparent or guardian. While the grown-up spends the morning learning basic academic skills, the child is in a preschool class. Parent and child meet for lunch and then 'learn how to learn together' for the rest of the afternoon.

A follow-up study of fourteen such programmes in three states revealed: (1) although all of the children had been designated as being at risk for school failure as pre-schoolers, only ten per cent were still rated at risk by their current elementary school teachers. (2) More than 90 per cent were considered by their current elementary school teachers as motivated to learn. (3) Not one of the children had to repeat any grade in elementary school.

The growth of the parents was no less dramatic. When asked to describe how their lives had changed as a result of the family literacy programme, typical responses described improved self- confidence (nearly every participant) and self-control, passing high-school equivalency exams, admission to college, new jobs, and much better relations with their children. The children are described as more attentive to parents, eager to learn and - in some cases for the first time - hopeful about the future. Such programmes could also be used in later grades for teaching mathematics, science and much else.

Tyrants and autocrats have always understood that literacy, learning, books and newspapers are potentially dangerous. They can put independent and even rebellious ideas in the heads of their subjects. The British Royal Governor of the Colony of Virginia wrote in 1671:

I thank God there are no free schools nor printing; and I hope we shall not have [them] these [next] hundred years; for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into the world, and printing has divulged them and libels against the best government. God keep us from both!

But the American colonists, understanding where liberty lies, would have none of this.

In its early years, the United States boasted one of the highest - perhaps the highest - literacy rates in the world. (Of course, slaves and women didn't count in those days.) As early as 1635, there had been public schools in Massachusetts, and by 1647 compul- sory education in all townships there of more than fifty 'house- holds'. By the next century and a half, educational democracy had spread all over the country. Political theorists came from other countries to witness this national wonder: vast numbers of ordi- nary working people who could read and write. The American devotion to education for all propelled discovery and invention, a vigorous democratic process, and an upward mobility that pumped the nation's economic vitality.

Today, the United States is not the world leader in literacy. Many of those judged literate are unable to read and understand very simple material - much less a sixth-grade textbook, an instruction manual, a bus schedule, a mortgage statement, or a ballot initiative. And the sixth-grade textbooks of today are much less challenging than those of a few decades ago, while the literacy requirements at the workplace have become more demanding than ever before.

The gears of poverty, ignorance, hopelessness and low self- esteem mesh to create a kind of perpetual failure machine that grinds down dreams from generation to generation. We all bear the cost of keeping it running. Illiteracy is its linchpin.

Even if we hardened our hearts to the shame and misery experienced by the victims, the cost of illiteracy to everyone else is severe - the cost in medical expenses and hospitalization, the cost in crime and prisons, the cost in special education, the cost in lost productivity and in potentially brilliant minds who could help solve the dilemmas besetting us.

Frederick Douglass taught that literacy is the path from slavery to freedom. There are many kinds of slavery and many kinds of freedom. But reading is still the path.

Frederick Douglass After the Escape

when he was barely twenty, he ran away to freedom. Settling in New Bedford with his bride, Anna Murray, he worked as a common labourer. Four years later Douglass was invited to address a meeting. By that time, in the North, it was not unusual to hear the great orators of the day - the white ones, that is - railing against slavery. But even many of those opposed to slavery thought of the slaves themselves as somehow less than human. On the night of 16 August 1841, on the small island of Nantucket, the members of the mostly Quaker Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society leaned forward in their chairs to hear something new: a voice raised in opposition to slavery by someone who knew it from bitter personal experience.

His very appearance and demeanour destroyed the then- prevalent myth of the 'natural servility' of African-Americans. By all accounts his eloquent analysis of the evils of slavery was one of the most brilliant debuts in American oratorical history. William Lloyd Garrison, the leading abolitionist of the day, sat in the front row. When Douglass finished his speech, Garrison rose, turned to the stunned audience, and challenged them with a shouted question: 'Have we been listening to a thing, a chattel personal, or a man?'

'A man! A man!' the audience roared back as one voice.

'Shall such a man be held a slave in a Christian land?' called out Garrison.

'No! No!' shouted the audience.

And even louder, Garrison asked: 'Shall such a man ever be sent back to bondage from the free soil of Old Massachusetts?' And now the crowd was on its feet, crying out 'No! No! No!'

He never did return to slavery. Instead, as an author, editor and publisher of journals, as a speaker in America and abroad, and as the first African-American to occupy a high advisory position in the US government, he spent the rest of his life fighting for human rights. During the Civil War, he was a consultant to President Lincoln. Douglass successfully advo- cated the arming of ex-slaves to fight for the North, Federal retaliation against Confederate prisoners-of-war for Confeder- ate summary execution of captured African-American soldiers, and freedom for the slaves as a principal objective of the war.

Many of his opinions were scathing, and ill-designed to win him friends in high places:

I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the South is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes - a justifier of the most appalling barbarity, a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds, and a dark shelter under which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection. Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me ... I ... hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.

Compared to some of the religiously inspired racist rhetoric of that time and later, Douglass's comments do not seem hyper- bolic. 'Slavery is of God' they used to say in antebellum times. As one of many loathsome post-Civil War examples, Charles Carroll's The Negro a Beast (American Book and Bible House) taught its pious readers that 'the Bible and Divine Revelation, as well as reason, all teach that the Negro is not human'. In more modern times, some racists still reject the plain testimony written in the DNA that all the races are not only human but nearly indistinguishable with appeals to the Bible as an 'impreg- nable bulwark' against even examining the evidence.

It is worth noting, though, that much of the abolitionist ferment arose out of Christian, especially Quaker, communi- ties of the North; that the traditional black Southern Chris- tian churches played a key role in the historic American civil rights struggle of the 1960s; and that many of its leaders - most notably Martin Luther King, Jr. - were ministers ordained in those churches.

Douglass addressed the white community in these words:

[Slavery] fetters your progress, it is the enemy of improvement; the deadly foe of education; it fosters pride; it breeds indolence; it promotes vice; it shelters crime; it is a curse of the earth that supports it, and yet you cling to it as if it were the sheet anchor of all your hopes.

In 1843, on a speaking tour of Ireland shortly before the potato famine, he was moved by the dire poverty there to write home to Garrison: 'I see much here to remind me of my former condition, and I confess I should be ashamed to lift my voice against American slavery, but that I know the cause of human- ity is one the world over.' He was outspoken in opposition to the policy of extermination of the Native Americans. And in 1848, at the Seneca Falls Convention, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton[1] had the nerve to call for an effort to secure the vote for women, he was the only man of any ethnic group to stand in support.

On the night of 20 February 1895 - more than thirty years after Emancipation - following an appearance at a women's rights rally with Susan B. Anthony, he collapsed and died, a true American hero.

[1] Years later, she wrote of the Bible in words reminiscent of Douglass's: 'I know of no other books that so fully teach the subjection and degradation of women.'

Sign up for free to join this conversation on GitHub. Already have an account? Sign in to comment