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This remarkable autobiography focuses on many themes, with slavery of course featuring heavily. However, what is so interesting about this autobiography is the theme of education and how it is presented. Throughout the text, Washington talks of education in a way that indicates just how much his youthful self revered it and saw it as a way of escaping his present hardships. Even as an adult, he indicates that it is the level of education that helps indicate whether somebody is "narrow" in terms of their interests and outlook in life, or more experienced and wider in how they think of the world. Education, then, becomes one of the key focuses in this book. However, at the same time, Washington also becomes aware of the problems with education and how it doesn't by itself yield the better life that he had thought it would. For example, note how he criticises the system of education in the following quote:
Too often, it seems to me, in missionary and educational work among underdeveloped races, people yield to the temptation of doing that which was done a hundred years before, or is being done in other communities a thousand miles away. The temptation often is to run each individual through a certain educational mould, regardless of the condition of the subject or the end to be accomplished.
Education, therefore, is a force that has massive potential to change and transform the lives of humans. However, as Washington indicates in this quote, it is also something that can damage and/or be ineffective in the way that it can lead to a "certain educational mould" that is imposed on people regardless on who those people are, their context or the purpose of education itself. The central theme of this work therefore is the role of education in our lives as humans, and the significant transformative potential education offers, but at the same time the dangers that education has.
eNotes has a great study guide for this text which can be found in the link below. According to the synopsis the book "is written in a simple style with an optimistic tone that suggests to African Americans that they can succeed through self-improvement and hard work."
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