“After I got so that I could read a little, I used to take a great deal of satisfaction in the lives of men who had risen by their own efforts from poverty to success. It is a great thing for a boy to be able to read books of that kind. It not only inspires him with the desire to do something and make something of his life, but it teaches him that success depends upon his ability to do something useful, to perform some kind of service that the world wants.”-Booker T. Washington, My Larger Education (1901)
Presidential Commentary by Dr. Brian Johnson
The great scholar, literary critic and ‘Narnia’ chronicler, C. S. Lewis, remarks about the value of books upon a young boy or girl’s imagination: “Since it is so likely that (children) will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker.” Here again, what one consistently reads, one consistently becomes; Just imagine what one might become when one reads about the lives of great men and women from the time of one’s youth even into one’s mature years. This is what the founding principal and president of Tuskegee (Institute) University recommends, and it is a recommendation that we would do well to not only just follow, but continuously follow. First, the world needs verifiable, authentic and organic heroes, not simply scripted and fictional ones. Men and women whose lives are grounded in believable and relatable life experiences that one can readily identify with provides great grounds for hope for those who have similar experiences. Second, one can learn from the mistakes made in the lived lives of others. It is simply not true that one must repeat the mistakes of others. (Instead, you read and learn from them.) The triumphant records of men and women that also record both their foibles and follies are useful for persons of any century to learn, discern and comprehend that what happened before may very well occur again. Third, the lived lives of men and women who are no longer amongst us are permanent, indelible and fixed records that will remain ever unchanged. (One may repeatedly interpret and re-interpret their deeds done but there will be no adding or taking away from them.) And this final thought is one that certainly motivated men and women of the class of Booker T. Washington and should motivate us as well. For Booker T.Washington knew that one has but one life to live, and there would be no do over. When future chroniclers composed the narrative of his life, he wanted to be certain that it contributed to making someone else’s “destiny brighter” not “darker.” The founding principal and president of Tuskegee (Institute) University did not simply write correspondence, books and speeches worth reading; he lived a life worth reading not only in his generation but also in the many future generations to come.
Brian L. Johnson, Ph.D.
7th President, Tuskegee University