The (Liberal Arts) Education of Ta-Nehisi Coates

Photo by Eduardo Montes-Bradley
Photo by Eduardo Montes-Bradley

At first glance, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ bestselling, National Book Award-winning book Between the World and Me (2015) may not seem like a particularly valuable addition to a liberal-arts-based course in a Core Curriculum program. Written as a letter to his teenage son, Samori, Coates’ memoir traces the harsh historical realities of racism in order to provide a framework for meaningful action for his son, who is on the verge of living as an adult black male in the twenty-first century United States. Throughout the book, one of Coates’ frequent objects of critique is formal education—or, more precisely, the kind of formal education that Coates received as a child in the inner city, Baltimore public school system. “To be educated in my Baltimore mostly meant always packing an extra number 2 pencil and working quietly,” Coates writes, since “Algebra, Biology, and English were not subjects so much as opportunities to better discipline the body.” Instead of presenting school as a space for growth and learning, his teachers presented school merely “as a means of escape from death and penal warehousing.” With the moral ferocity of an Old Testament prophet, Coates concludes with a pithy, unequivocal condemnation of public education in West Baltimore: “Schools did not reveal truths, they concealed them. Perhaps they must be burned away so that the heart of this thing might be known.”

Although some readers may recoil at the image of a school building in flames, a careful reading of the book in its entirety reveals that Coates critiques his early education precisely because it was not a liberal arts education, because it was not the kind of education that is committed to the ars liberalis—or the “art of freedom”—which aims to liberate the mind not only to think critically and independently, but to reach its fullest potential. At its heart, then, Between the World and Me is an account of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ own liberal arts education, but a unique, largely self-taught, version that Coates reimagines for his son, and by way of metonymy, for a broader audience of contemporary young readers. Ultimately, I contend that by including Between the World and Me in a Core Curriculum course, students can better grasp not just the relevance of a liberal arts education, literally the “art of freedom,” but the historical and moral stakes of an education dedicated to truth, beauty, and goodness.

Circumventing the public school system, Coates began his liberal arts education in the domestic sphere thanks to his mother. Coates tells his son that this education, his “real” education, started when Coates’ mother (Samori’s grandmother) taught him how to write, a crucial skill which Coates defines as “not simply organizing a set of sentences into a series of paragraphs, but organizing them as a means of investigation.” When Coates was in trouble at school, his mother would make him write answers to a series of questions: Why did he, at least implicitly through his behavior, not believe that his teacher was entitled to respect? How would Coates himself want other people to behave when he was talking? In these essayistic exercises, Coates found that his mother’s aim was to present the act of writing not simply as a disciplinary tool to keep him busy, nor as a form of communication to signal respectability, but rather as a vital skill in a liberal intellectual toolkit. “Your grandmother,” he tells his son, “was not teaching me how to behave in class. She was teaching me how to ruthlessly interrogate…myself.” The insight Coates gleaned is one of the first fundamental premises of a liberal arts education. “Here was the lesson,” Coates bluntly tells Samori, “I was not an innocent. My impulses were not filled with unfailing virtue. And feeling that I was as human as anyone, this must be true for other humans.” This lesson mimics the kind of insight one gleans from reading a Core text such as St. Augustine’s Confessions, particularly when the young Augustine steals pears from a neighbor’s tree not to satisfy the pangs of physical hunger, but to relish in sin for its own sake.

For Coates, the misrecognition of this Augustinian axiom of human behavior—i.e., that you can never be wholly convinced of your own purity and righteousness—is the poisonous foundation of “the Dream.” A rhetorical trope that Coates coins and sprinkles throughout Between the World and Me, “the Dream” is the understandable human temptation to believe in comforting myths, to cherish one’s own moral innocence, both at the micro-level of the self and at the macro-level of the nation-state.

“The Dream,” in Coates’ words, “thrives on generalization, on limiting the number of possible questions, on privileging immediate answers. The Dream is the enemy of all art, courageous thinking, and honest writing.”

On the one hand, Coates dismantles “the Dream” that undergirds America’s history of racism, exposing how “white America’s progress, or rather the progress of those Americans who believe that they are white, was built on looting and violence.” To look deeply into American history, Coates argues, is to be confronted with the fact that “white America” has tended to function as “a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control [black] bodies.” On the other hand, though, Coates reminds readers that the temptations inherent to “the Dream” are not exclusive to so-called “white people.” Indeed, Coates acknowledges that it took him a long time—his entire college experience at Howard University, basically—to understand that the very concepts of ontological “whiteness” and “blackness” are themselves part and parcel of “the Dream.”

As a student at Howard University in the mid-1990s, Coates admits that he honed his critiques against “white America” and “whiteness” in ways that left him susceptible to an ahistorical, mythically comforting definition of “blackness.” While devouring books in the Howard library, Coates came to see that “the power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white, and without it ‘white people’ would cease to exist for want of reasons.” The historical status of whiteness, Coates realized, had never been an ontological reality operating within the paradigm of biology, but rather a Post-Enlightenment social creation operating within the paradigm of politics. Coates concluded, then, that the concept of “race” was ultimately not about people with lighter or darker skin tones, but about the categorization and distribution of power. However, this insight disrupted Coates’ own soothing myth, in his words, that a transcendental entity called “‘the black race’ was a thing [that] existed from time immemorial, a thing that was real and mattered.” To the young Coates’ dismay, “it became clear that this [way of thinking] was not just for the dreams concocted by [white] Americans to justify themselves but also for the dreams that I had conjured to replace them.” Coates states that the solution to the intellectual trap he had set for himself, of countering a white “Dream” with a black one, was to return to the hard work of writing, which was “still, as my mother had taught me, a confrontation with my own innocence, my own rationalizations.” Put simply, Coates realized that he needed to continue to sharpen that intellectual toolkit which is constitutive of a liberal arts education: critical thinking, reading, and writing.

Not coincidently, Coates packs the ensuing scenes of Between the World and Me with detailed insights that epitomize liberal learning. Rejecting his earlier “alliterative talk of guns or revolutions or paeans to the lost dynasties of Africa,” Coates embraced the “gnawing discomfort” of historical contingency and the “intellectual vertigo” of ethical ambiguity. To be “truly free,” Coates writes, he saw that he would need “more than a national trophy case” of heroic blackness. Coates summarizes this educational zenith point to his son in words powerful enough to warrant precise quotation:

“It began to strike me that the point of my education was a kind of discomfort, was the process that would not award my own especial Dream but would break all the dreams, all the comforting myths of Africa, of America, and everywhere, and would leave me only with humanity in all its terribleness. And there was so much terrible out there, even among us. You must understand this.”

At this point, Coates has effectively reframed the usual ways of dealing with the enduring problem of American racism. The specific instances of racial prejudice and violence earlier in the book are revealed as symptomatic manifestations of fundamental problems of epistemology and ethics—of those forms of truth and goodness, in other words, interrogated by Homer and Dante and Shakespeare, but also Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois and Martin Luther King, Jr. Toward the end of the book, Coates solidifies this larger point when he discloses to Samori the raison d’être of his entire epistolary narrative: “I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.”

Coates’ invocation of citizenship here illuminates the true value of Between the World and Me as a Core Curriculum text, since a liberal arts education is, ultimately, an education in citizenship—not in the narrow sense of being legally recognized by the state, of course, but in the broader philosophical sense of being aware of, and responsible for, the way one navigates crucial relationships between friends, family, neighbors, nations, religious institutions, etc. Moreover, Coates reminds readers that, in the historico-political context of the United States, racism and its ideological residue (i.e., the mystifying category of “race”) cannot be painlessly excised from this capacious definition of citizenship. As James Baldwin, perhaps Coates’ primary intellectual influence, summed it up in I am Not Your Negro: “The history of America is the history of the Negro in America.”

Essentially, what Coates calls for, and models through his own educational bildungsroman, in Between the World and Me is this: that a deep engagement with the liberal arts can catalyze critical thinking and break various manifestations of “the Dream,” and that the end of a semester class, or even the end of an entire undergraduate career, is just the beginning of one’s education. This insight, Coates tells his son, is what he calls the lifelong “gift of study: to question what I see, then to question what I see after that, because the questions matter as much, perhaps more than, the answers.”

Bryan Santin is Assistant Professor of English at Concordia University Irvine. He presented a version of this essay at the annual conference of the Association for Core Texts and Courses in Santa Fe, NM in April 2019.