Education In Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass

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Education is one of the most important themes in Frederick Douglass’ 1845 autobiographical memoir Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. However, despite the emphasis placed on education, it is presented as a double-edged sword. On one hand, Frederick Douglass feels that the only way to secure freedom for himself and his fellow slaves is to through learning how to read and write and receiving an education. On the other hand, education is presented as damaging to the mind as Frederick Douglass becomes increasingly aware of the full extent of his servitude. Throughout the memoir, Douglass presents education as a negative force on the psychology of the slaves as well as incompatible with the system of slavery.
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Slave masters fear what slaves may be able to do with knowledge so they embark on a systematic campaign of keeping slaves in the dark. Douglass does not know his birthday. Nor does he know is father or his family. This forced ignorance is a means by which slave owners kept their slaves in line. Literacy, education are thought of as critical tools for emancipation (Kohn). When Douglas is sent to live with Mrs. Auld, he initially was treated with kindness as Mrs. Auld had never owned a slave prior to Frederick Douglass. As Douglass and Mrs. Auld adjust to this new arrangement, Mrs. Auld begins to teach him his ABC’s. This arrangement is quickly stopped by Mr. Auld who declares “unlawful” and “unsafe” (Pg). For those who had never owned a slave, the education of slaves was of no great consequence, but to those who participated in the institution, education was the key to the locks placed on the slaves. Mr. Covey even goes as far as to state that “if you give a ni**er an inch, he will take a mile” (Pg). To the slave owner, the idea of having an educated slave was troublesome. There would be nothing to contain them in their present situation, a sentiment echoed by Douglass as he writes that his education “had given me an inch and no precaution could prevent me from taking the ell” (81). In order for owners to maintain slavery as a viable institution, it was important for many of them to make educating a slave something that not only not allowed, but also punishable. In other words, by the fierce opposition to education, the owners were implicitly admitting that through education lay some kind of freedom which was incompatible with slavery. The role of education is primarily thought to be a positive force for development, but Douglass presents it as a negative force throughout his memoir. He may have depicted education as containing negative aspects in slavery in order

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