“Some years ago, in an effort to bring our rhetorical and commencement exercises into a little closer touch with real things, we tried the experiment at Tuskegee of having students write papers on some subject of which they had first-hand knowledge. As a matter of fact, I believe that Tuskegee was the first institution that attempted to reform its commencement exercises in this particular direction.” – Booker T. Washington, My Larger Education (1911)
Presidential Commentary by Dr. Brian Johnson
What might now be considered as painstakingly obvious-the idea that an educated man or woman should be well-versed in having “first-hand knowledge”-Tuskegee University was a visionary institution in the education of her students under the leadership of its founding principal and president, Booker T. Washington. For the characteristic of possessing “first-hand knowledge” is the hallmark of the thoroughly educated man or woman based upon the following reasons: First, these young men and women will be not easily deceived and misled as they enter into their chosen field of study. Having already experienced in some measure-whether in matters great or small-the activities that will be required of them, they are knowledgeable and prepared to not only deal abstractly but practically. Second, they learn to discern second-hand knowledge (or worst hearsay) as men and women of intelligence. (Only the unintelligible rely upon knowledge that they have not vetted “first-hand” or experienced.) The mark of intelligence is but an extension of one’s integrity, the greatest 9-letter word, and if a man or woman would rely upon second-hand and/or piecemeal information in the employment of their duties in their chosen field of endeavor, they put their own work and reputation at risk through no other’s fault but their own. Third and last, “first-hand knowledge” separates one from peers and colleagues who have not undertaken the requisite work and suffering (endurance) necessary for gaining this knowledge. (Hear again, if one learns how to suffer and is willing to suffer well, one will learn how to succeed.) These men and women undertook to do what others were unwilling to do, afraid to do or simply too lethargic to do. The founder’s oft-repeated two most important qualities, “faith” and “hard work”, are both necessary but the latter-the second greatest 4-letter word-is what gives men and women the grand opportunity to separate themselves on the field of “first-hand knowledge.” (These men and women work while others talk.) You will not learn what you will not work to learn, and in this the centennial anniversary of Tuskegee University’s Booker T. Washington’s passing (1915-2015), we celebrate both the legacy and the institution of higher learning he “worked” for 34 years (1881-1915) to establish.