W. E. B. Du Bois was a social and political activist in several different ways and had very pronounced views about education. Du Bois became especially active socially and politically after serving as a teacher of poor African Americans in the rural south. One of his most important academic accomplishments was a detailed study of the lives of black people living in Philadelphia at the very end of the nineteenth century. This work, like so many of his writings, was designed not simply to call attention to problems but to suggest solutions to them.
As he grew older and had more personal experiences with racism, Du Bois became an increasingly outspoken advocate of political and social responses to racial discrimination. He also became increasingly disenchanted with the ideas of Booker T. Washington, who had achieved great prominence by arguing that African Americans needed to find ways to cooperate with whites and who particularly advocated the need for practical education for black people rather than the more traditional education in the liberal arts to which whites were exposed. Du Bois argued, instead, that black people should have as wide and as varied opportunities for education as whites, depending on their individual interests and talents.
As a scholar, journalist, editor, and political activist, Du Bois sought to make African Americans fully equal citizens of the United States, especially at the ballot box. He was vigorously involved in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He fought lynching and became increasingly interested in improving the lives not only of African Americans but of Africans as well. By the end of his life his thinking had become increasingly associated with the left wing of American politics.
Regarding education, Du Bois believed that all people should have access to the kind of learning that best fitted their interests and capacities. Thus he criticized people such as Washington for forgetting
the rule of inequality: – that of the million black youth, some were fitted to know and some to dig; that some had the talent and capacity of university men, and some the talent and capacity of blacksmiths; and that true training meant neither that all should be college men nor all artisans, but that the one should be made a missionary of culture to an untaught people, and the other a free workman among serfs. And to seek to make the blacksmith a scholar is almost as silly as the more modern one of making the scholar a blacksmith; almost, but not quite. (The Souls of Black Folk)
According to Du Bois,
the function of the Negro college . . . is clear: it must maintain the standards of popular education, it must seek the social regeneration of the Negro, and it must help in the solution of problems of race contact and co-operation. (The Souls of Black Folks)
Throughout his life, Du Bois refused to accept any limitations on the rights and opportunities that should be available to black people, both in the United States and throughout the world.