Catherine the Great, Frederick Douglass, and education reform

I usually keep two books going at once. I like to find the connections and divergences between seemingly unrelated texts.

Recently, I’ve been making my way through a biography of Catherine the Great and the autobiography of Frederick Douglass.

Going in, I figured the brain-candy thread tying the two together would be the dissimilarities between their nearly contemporary lives: Douglass (1818–95) born into American slavery, eventually escaping, becoming a leading abolitionist and statesman; Catherine (1729–96) born into German nobility, marrying into Russian royalty, ruling for more than 30 years.

But as it turns out, the stories of these historical giants have three associations particularly relevant to our work.

Catherine the Great
Catherine the Great tried to end serfdom—but eventually grew acclimated to power.
Photo from the Wikimedia Commons

First, though she was spectacularly wealthy—casually distributing estates, amassing the largest art collection in Europe’s history—Catherine tried to end the abomination of serfdom. As the book recounts, “The conditions of Russian serfs resembled that of black slaves in America.”

It is striking how two people from such disparate backgrounds could be compelled to advocate for the same moral cause. Douglass lived the horror: He had no knowledge of his age and was separated from mother in infancy. He was often awakened in morning by “the most heartrending shrieks” of slaves being whipped. He and other slave children ate from troughs and went without shoes, socks, jackets, or trousers.

Catherine’s understanding of serfdom’s brutality was primarily conceptual. She was an Enlightenment leader, having befriended Voltaire and Diderot and internalized the works of Montesquieu and Rousseau. Though she didn’t suffer the life of a serf, she was dedicated to the cause of liberty. Her journeys across her empire, seeing the squalor endured by the unfortunate, only bolstered this commitment.

This serves an important reminder that those who nobly fight injustice—including unequal educational opportunity—come from a myriad of backgrounds. Martin Luther King Jr.’s and Robert Kennedy’s upbringings and daily experiences couldn’t have been more different, yet each was a standard-bearer in the battle for civil rights.

Catherine the Great
Frederick Douglass was the consummate indispensable external agitator.
Photo from the Wikimedia Commons

This relates to the second lesson: Successfully bringing about major social change requires constant pressure from the outside and smarts and savvy on the inside.

Of course, Douglass was the consummate indispensable external agitator. His writings were as valuably inflammatory as Beecher Stowe’s. His speeches, like the incomparable 1852 polemic “celebrating” Independence Day (“This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn."), provoked friends and scourged opponents.

His defiant participation in the Underground Railroad was an affront to the establishment. His proverbs, like “Power concedes nothing without a demand,” have inspired generations of crusaders; indeed, I couldn’t help but think of Douglass as I read about BAEO’s recent rally to preserve the Louisiana voucher program.

But outsiders need insiders. Early in her imperial tenure, Catherine drafted the Nakaz (“Instruction”), an entirely new legal code designed to modernize and liberalize Russia, then widely viewed as Europe’s backwater. Her first iteration brazenly included a path to ending serfdom. Though anathema to the comfortable landed gentry, who benefited from class hierarchy and on whose support this young female monarch relied for legitimacy, she pushed.

Her arguments weren’t merely moral lectures, which often fall on deaf privileged ears; they were pragmatic, political prods: If the powerful didn’t bring about the “amelioration of the intolerable position of the human species, then, even against our will, they themselves will seize it sooner or later.”

With the benefit of hindsight, we may criticize her work as insufficiently forceful or consistent (serfdom’s final demise would wait a century). But her efforts were almost certainly essential. They raised and advanced an argument that had been verboten, forcing the content to reconsider. And it is almost certainly true that she alone could have served in this capacity.

Just as only Nixon could go to China and only Lincoln could secure the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, often only those in and of the system can codify the revolution. One may be repulsed by Lyndon Johnson’s arrogance and crassness and still admire—even marvel at—his wily insider scheming that delivered the 1957 and 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

But there is no doubt that insiders flounder without outsiders; adaptive leadership generally requires the mounting of exogenous pressure. Were it not for Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and many others, the Lincoln legacy may be less. In fact, it might be the case that Catherine the Great’s tilt at serfdom proved unsuccessful in the short-term because she lacked exterior partners.

The final lesson hits particularly close to home for me. It is that the comforts of authority can slowly inure even the best leaders to the struggles of others.

Lord Acton wrote, “Power corrupts.” But it also acclimates. It depletes urgency. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail in response not to vicious enemies but to ostensibly friendly fellow men of the cloth encouraging him to slow down.

Indeed, a major theme of Douglass’s book is that unjust power ultimately affects the oppressor nearly as much as the oppressed.

Unfortunately, after years on the throne, Catherine’s resolve for justice seemed to flag. The “Pugachev Rebellion,” a peasants’ uprising, nudged her closer to cause of the nobility. By the time of the French Revolution, she was firmly on the side of authority, demeaning the mobilized masses. As her biographer writes, “The more radical France became, the more defensive and reactionary were her responses.”

Eventually, she ordered all bookshops to register with the state, confiscated editions of Voltaire’s writings, banned private printing presses, and finally declared that all books had to be approved by the state.

In total, then, these two books have reminded me that there is room in our field for both Catherine the Greats and Frederick Douglasses and that both are absolutely critical to the success of our work.

But I’m also chastened by this final thought: For years, contemporary education reform was a movement of outsiders. Now, many of us serve in official—and comfortable—positions of authority.

I can only hope that my colleagues and I can maintain our revolutionary zeal as we become accustomed to the inside.

More By Author

Related Articles