7 August 2013
To Learn or Not to Learn
Throughout Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the importance of education becomes apparent as Frederick Douglass’ opinion wavers. Towards the beginning of the narrative, Douglass is eager to learn, and when his master forbids his learning, it only fuels his desire to further his education. Once he is finally able to read, however, he becomes restless with his life and blames education for his discontent. Ultimately, though, he views education as vital to his freedom from slavery and realizes that he can put his education to good use, helping other slaves to freedom.
Frederick Douglass comes to see the power of education when he moves in with the Aulds. When he is first living with them, Mrs. Auld starts to teach him the basics of reading and writing. He is content and eager to learn, until Mr. Auld prohibits his wife from furthering Douglass’ education, saying, “If you teach that nigger how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. As to himself it would do him no good. It would make him discontented and unhappy” (Douglass 22). Instead of discouraging his education, however, this only prompts Douglass to learn more, as he now understands that education is key in his escape from a life of slavery. Douglass soon finds new means of education in the young white boys that live near him, who will occasionally give him lessons in return for bread.
Just as Mr. Auld had predicted, as soon as Douglass is able to read on his own, he begins to become discontent and restless with his life. His education had “opened [his] eyes to the horrible pit, but offered no ladder upon which to get out” (Douglass 26). At times Douglass finds himself envious of the lack of knowledge of the other slaves around him, as he is now aware of his foul quality of life, but can find no way of relief. “I often found myself regretting my own existence, and wishing myself dead; and but for the hope of being free, I have no doubt but that I should have killed myself, or done something for which I should have been killed” (Douglass 26). This quote is an example of just how disturbed and discontented Douglass is with his quality of life. The more Douglass reads, the more frustrated he feels, as he comes to believe that his masters are no more then “successful robbers” who took his people from their homes and enslaved them.
Although having an education seems like a curse to Frederick Douglass at times, he comes to view education as essential to his escape from slavery. Through reading, Douglass becomes aware of the abolitionist movement in the northern part of the United States. As a result, he is able to eventually find a way to run away to the north, and start a new life for himself as a free man. He soon puts his education to good use and starts writing Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, in hopes that it will have a big enough impact on people to help other slaves be emancipated from their tragic reality of slavery.
Despite the fact that Frederick Douglass’ education sometimes felt like a burden, he would not have been able to escape to freedom without it. Because of his motivation to learn early in life, he was eventually able to understand the abolitionist movement and run away to the north. He used his education to write one of the most influential works of literature to help the emancipation movement in the United States.