©2000 NewFoundations

The Educational Theory Of Mary Mcleod Bethune

Analyst: M. F. de Tal




I. Theory of Value: What knowledge and skills are worthwhile learning? What are the goals of education?

"I am teaching girls crafts and homemaking as well as reading and writing. I am teaching them to earn a living." (McKissack, p. 68)

Her students were given a sound academic curriculum -- reading, writing, and math. At the same time she included homemaking classes such as cooking and sewing. With these skills the girls could always get jobs. If they had higher goals of college, she saw to it that they were prepared to go on. "There is no such thing as menial labor, only menial self-esteem.... " She taught her girls to glorify any job they did by doing it well. (McKissack, p. 70)

"My people needed literacy, ... but they needed even more to learn the simples of farming, of making decent homes, of health and plain cleanliness." (Embree, p. 15)

Knowing that book learning was not enough for people in need of everything, Mrs. Bethune built no academic college. Booker T. Washington, rather than Aristotle, was her ideal. With a solid grounding in the three Rs, she led her students on to preparation for living and for making a living. Farming, cooking and sewing, care for food and health, hand skills, were at the center of her course. "English and arithmetic? Yes, for they are necessary tools for modern living. But algebra and Latin and other high-falutin, academic courses? No, not for children who are going to live in everyday America." (Embree, pp. 18-19)

II. Theory of Knowledge: What is knowledge? How is it different from belief? What is a lie?

"There is no such thing as Negro education -- only education. I want my people to prepare themselves bravely for life, not because they are Negroes, but because they are men." (Time, p. 46)

The school reflected Bethune's beliefs about the role of women in society, morality, and self-reliance. 11 ... They will be trained in head, hand and heart. Their hands to think, their hands to work, and their hearts to have faith." (McCluskey, p. 122)

[There have been] charges that Bethune was accommodating racism and the status quo... In her letters and journal, Bethune related incidences where she held her tongue and smiled while soliciting contributions from whites whose ideas about blacks were not always complimentary. Bethune had decided that the end justified the means ... and there were few alternatives. (McCluskey, p. 119)

III. Theory of Human Nature: What is a human being? How does it differ from other species? What are the limits of human potential?

Bethune felt one of the big differences between the black and white races was the "matter of reading and writing." (McCluskey, p. 115)

She felt students who wanted higher education should be encouraged and supported. "Go as far as your aspirations and talents can take you," was Bethune's message. (McCluskey, p. 124)

Bethune felt her curriculum stressed success and contrasted it with the alternative of dependency and degradation. (McCluskey, p. 122)

Bethune felt education, especially for black women, gave them the chance to emerge from social and political invisibility that kept them oppressed. (Sicherman & Green, p. 76)

She stated, "I cannot rest while there is a single Negro boy or girl lacking a chance to prove his worth." (Davis, p. 114)

She formed the National Council of Negro Women in 1937 to "improve opportunities for Negro women in every field, to strive for better working conditions, higher standards of living, equal educational opportunities, and civil rights." (Davis, p. 289)

"Be an artist in whatever you do." (Bethune, p. 47)

IV. Theory of Learning: What is learning? How are skills and knowledge acquired?

Bethune believed the "work of the mind controls the work of the hands and heart and together they fulfilled the functions of education-" (McCluskey, p. 122)

Bethune's educational curriculum included basic academics, a pious religious atmosphere, and training in homemaking and teaching. She planned her school with the idea of educating girls as the keepers of the home. (Hine, p. 114)

The school's concept of education emphasized domestic, vocational and religious training. (Button, p. 821)

Her belief was that knowing book learning was not enough for people in need of everything and thus built a school solid in the three Rs as well as leading students on to preparation for living and making a living. (Embree, p. 18)

"Students should be prepared to earn their way in the world and should be taught to respect even menial jobs." (Bethune, p. 47)

V. Theory of Transmission: Who is to teach? By what methods? What will the curriculum be?

The question of who is to teach is not directly addressed, but the underlying theme seems to be that anyone with a passion for teaching should teach.

The methods of teaching should be by example, by instruction, and by self-actualization. (Embree, p. 15)

The curriculum should be life skills and only those academic courses that have life application. (Embree, p. 19)

"Head, Hands, and Heart: Heads to think, hands to work, hearts to have faith." ...Domestic arts and reading, writing, math, and music. Later, business and science courses. (McCluskey, p. 122)

VI. Theory of Society:

Women are caretakers - symbols of purity, morality, and sentimentality. This replaced the old view of women as evil. (McCluskey, p. 118)

Bethune stressed responsibility which gave one authority to do good in the world. (McCluskey, p. 118)

Bethune believed that voting is very important to the educational process. (Butler, p. 82)

Theory of Opportunity: Who is to be educated? Who is to be schooled?

Black women who want education should receive education. (McCluskey, p.118)

Black girls especially lacked educational opportunities, and schooling should be provided to them. (Bethune, p. 49)

"I want my people to prepare themselves bravely for life, not because they are Negroes, but because they are men." (Time, p. 46)

VIII. Theory of Consensus: Why do people disagree? How is consensus achieved? Whose opinion takes precedence?

"Why do they hate us so?" she asked Samuel.
"Because we're colored," he answered....
"Why aren't there any school for us?"
"Because we're colored," said Patsy. (McKissack, pp. 19, 20)

Bethune fine-tuned her leadership to the racial climate in which she lived, a climate never characterized by a national commitment to change the subordinate status of African-Americans but one affected greatly by the exigencies of the Great Depression and two world wars. This meant that though Black Americans lacked equal opportunity, they experienced increasing opportunity. Bethune maneuvered at any given time within superimposed restraints ... In her early years she emphasized the hallmarks of accommodation... ;'later she could agitate for higher educational opportunities, government assistance, and full citizenship rights ... [S]he had vision, determination, an intuitive understanding of people, and persuasive powers. (Hine, p. 126)

But Mary was learning a very valuable lesson -- how to use her education tactfully, to avoid confrontation. (McKissack, p. 29)


"Be a Daniel!" Time, 30 May 1955, 44+.

Bethune, M.M. A coll I ege built on faith. The Reader's Digest, July 1941, 47-50.

Button, J.W. Blacks and social change: Imp act of the civil rights movement in southern communities. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Davis, M.W. (ed.) Contributions of black women to America, vol. II. Columbia, SC: Kenday Press, Inc., 1982.

Embree, E.R. Against the odds. New York: The Viking Press, 1944.

Hine, D.C. (ed.) Black women in America: An historical-encyclopedia, vol. I. Brooklyn, NY: Carlson Publishing Inc., 1993.

McCluskey, A.T. Mary McLeod Bethune and the education of black girls. Roles, v 21 n 1/2, 1989.

McKissack, P.C. Mary McLeod Bethune: A great American educator. Chicago: Childrens' Press, 1985.

Sicherman, B. & Green, C.H. (eds.) Notable American women: The modern period: A biographical dictionary Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980.