“Education is a dependent, inter-acting unit of the whole culture. Indeed, it lies at the heart of the culture, and necessarily reflects the contending values which there prevail,” writes Doxey A. Wilkerson, the associate professor of education at the Yeshiva University of New York, in the foreword for Carter Woodson’s The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861. Education, as posited by Wilkerson, represents a cultural construct, liable to change as people change, rather than a historical absolute, constant over time. The community determines the value, and the accessibility of this institution of knowledge.
The communities created in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Langston Hughes’ Not Without Laughter also establish the importance of education. Huckleberry Finn, the white male adolescent protagonist of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Sandy Rogers, the black male adolescent protagonist of Not Without Laughter, both question the necessity of formal education. However, in the end, Huck, advantaged because he is a white male, successfully abandons, unequivocally, all constraints of society, including education, while Sandy turns to formal education, attempting to use it as an equalizer against racial discrimination. The novels, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Not Without Laughter, reinforce the racial disparity between whites and blacks by creating communities that undermine the value of education, and determine each race’s ability to succeed without formal education.
In each of the novels, the communities established by Twain and Hughes, define the characteristics prevalent in their societies. Huck Finn’s river community, for example, encompasses the aristocracy, the poor whites, the pseudo-intellectuals, and the slaves or uneducated blacks. Not Without Laughter’s small town community, on the other hand, encompasses white folks, older African Americans, and younger African Americans. Huck Finn’s aristocracy are well born, and because “that’s worth as much in a man as it is in a horse”, the aristocratic characters become models for their society (Twain 107). Huck Finn, the adolescent protagonist of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, defines the Grangerfords, the Shepherdsons, and the Widow Douglas as the aristocracy, thereby, establishing them as the privileged sector of the river community. Not Without Laughter’s white folks build and maintain the division between the two races in their town. The white folks, indubitably, are the privileged sector because they serve as paradigms for their small town community.
The privileged characters of each society, then, determine the value and the accessibility of education through their roles as precedents of their society. Yet, the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons, blinded by their hatred of each other, debilitate their young by involving them so deeply in a conflict that has no resolution except death. The youngest boy, Buck Grangerford, cannot correctly spell Huck’s fake alias,...