EducationGod-Led FoundationsHomeschoolingLearning From Life

Walking with Frederick Douglass: Wired to Learn


My new favorite morning routine is to go out walking in the local hills with an audio book. By doing this, I start the day with some much needed exercise while also tackling some books I never have the time to read. I feel like I accomplish so much before 9:00 a.m.


Recently, I enjoyed Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Somehow, this book was never assigned in any of my high school or college classes, but it was still one I thought I should read. Let’s just say I’m so glad I did! In fact, I don’t know how—or why—anyone could study the era of slavery without it. So many layers of this dark institution are revealed in a way that cannot be matched in textbook accounts. Contemporary writers writing about the past lack the electrified perspective that comes from one who is sharing from personal experience. The impact—the authenticity—is somehow different.


Anyway, this post is not intended to be a book review but a reflection of life and learning that came to me from reading/listening to it.


I found Mr. Douglass to be a perfect example of the human ability to pursue knowledge and understanding. For him, the fire was lit somewhere around the age of 9 or 10 when his master’s wife, Sophia Auld, began teaching him to read. Her husband, Hugh Auld, quickly halted the endeavor with a warning:


It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable and of no use to his master. (pg. 41)


This statement flipped on a switch in young Frederick Douglass that opened his eyes and transformed his life:


From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. (pg. 41)


The pathway from slavery to freedom—this is a profound connection indeed. At various times in history, those desirous of power have recognized it too and have used the tight control of another’s thought life to their own advantage.


I have found that, to make a contented slave, 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. He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right, and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man. (pg. 87)



It’s important to remember that our modern school system has been in the business of shaping minds for generations.

It was developed over 100 years ago without the counsel of God. Ever since then, the adjustments made by sometimes well-meaning (but always sinful) people have taken us even farther from Him. The result is an approach to education that relies on carefully managed experiences and a one-way flow of information directed at an impressionable youth. They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved. (2 Peter 2:19). But, perhaps that’s a tangent for another time.


What I’d rather focus on now is Frederick Douglass’s response to his epiphany. A lowly slave who was considered less than human went through great pains to educate himself. I was impressed (and sometimes entertained) by the cunning ways in which Mr. Douglass went about it. For instance, while working in a shipyard, he observed the carpenters labeling different parts LA, LF, SA, or SF.


I immediately commenced copying them, and in a short time was able to make the four letters named. After that, when I met with any boy who I knew could write, I would tell him I could write as well as he. The next word would be, “I don’t believe you. Let me see you try it.” I would then make the letters I had been so fortunate as to learn, and ask him to beat that. In this way I got a good many lessons in writing, which it is quite possible I should never have gotten in any other way. During this time, my copy-book was the board fence, brick wall, and pavement; my pen and ink was a lump of chalk. (pg. 47-48)


Learning happens all the time, even under the worst conditions and without the intervention of certified professionals. But for that to happen, it’s the student who must take ownership of his learning . I’m not suggesting that teachers should be removed from the equation. What I am saying is that the work of the teacher as modeled by Christ is quite different from our modern interpretation of the role. Today, emphasis in education rests disproportionately on the shoulders of teachers rather than students. That is how the system was designed to function.


Well, these were just some of the thoughts that came out of my morning walks with Frederick Douglass. I have finished the book now, and the impact of his words will stick with me for a long time to come. So will his incredible faith and resourcefulness.