Character Building  by Booker T. Washington

Chapter 2 Helping Others

There are a few essential things in an institution of this kind that I think it is well for you to keep ever before you.

This institution does not exist for your education alone; it does not exist for your comfort and happiness altogether, although those things are important, and we keep them in mind; it exists that we may give you intelligence, skill of hand, and strength of mind and heart; and we help you in these ways that you, in turn, may help others. We help you that you may help somebody else, and if you do not do this, when you go out from here, then our work here has been in vain.

You would be surprised to know how small a part of your own expenses you pay here. You pay but little; and-by reason of that fact it follows that as trustees of the funds which are given to this institution, we have no right to keep an individual here who we do not think is going to be able to go out and help somebody else. We have no right to keep a student here who we do not think is strong enough to go out and be of assistance to somebody else. We are here for the purpose of educating you, that you may become strong, intelligent and helpful.

If you were paying the cost of your board here, and for your tuition, and fuel and lights, then we should have a different problem. But so long as it is true that you pay so small a proportion of your expenses as you do, we must keep in view the fact that we have no right to keep a student here, no matter how much we may sympathize with him or her, unless that student is going to be able to do somebody else some good. Every young man and every young woman should feel that he or she is here on trust, that every day here is a sacred day; that it is a day that belongs to the race.

Our graduates, and the majority of the students that have gone out from here, have ever had an unselfish spirit, and have been willing to go out and work at first for small salaries, and in uncomfortable places, where in a large degree conditions have been discouraging and desolate. We believe that kind of spirit will continue to exist in this institution, and that we shall continue to have students who will go out from here to make other persons strong and useful.

Now no individual can help another individual unless he himself is strong. You notice that the curriculum here goes along in three directions along the line of labor, of academic training, and of moral and religious training. We expect those who are here to keep strong, and to make themselves efficient in these three directions, in each of which you are to learn to be leaders.

Some people are able to do a thing when they are directed to do it, but people of that kind are not worth very much. There are people in the world who never think, who never map out anything for themselves, who have to wait to be told what to do. People of that kind are not worth anything. They really ought to pay rent for the air they breathe, for they only vitiate it. Now we do not want such people as those here. We want people who are going to think, people who are going to prepare themselves. I noticed an incident this morning. Did you ever hear that side door creak on its hinges before this morning? The janitor ought to have noticed that creaking and put some oil on the hinges without waiting to be told to do it.

Then, again, this morning I noticed that after it had been raining hard for twenty-four hours, when it was wet and muddy, no provision had been made to protect the hogs at the sty, and they were completely covered with mud. Now the person who had charge of the sty should not have waited for some one to tell him to go down there and put some straw in for bedding and put boards over the sty to keep the animals dry. No one in charge of the hogs ought to have waited to be told to do a thing like that. The kind of persons we want here are those who are not going to wait for you to tell them to do such things, but who will think of them for themselves and do them. If we cannot turn out a man here who is capable of taking care of a pig sty, how can we expect him to take care of affairs of State?

Then, again, some of you are expected to take care of the roads. I should have liked to have seen boys this morning so much interested in working on the roads that they would have put sawdust from this build-ing to the gate. I should have liked to see them put down some boards, and arrange for the water to drain off. We want such fellows as those here. The ones we want are the ones who are going to think of such things as these without being told. That is the only kind of people worth having.

Those who have to wait to have somebody else put ideas into their minds are not worth much of anything. And, to be plain with you, we cannot have such people here. We want you to be thinkers, to be leaders.


Yesterday, and the night before, I traveled on the Mobile and Ohio railroad from St. Louis to Montgomery, and there was a young man on the same train who was not more than twenty years old, I believe, who recently had been appointed a special freight agent of the road. All his conversation was about freight. He talked freight to me and to everybody else. He would ask this man and that man if they had any freight, and if so he would tell them that they must have it shipped over the Mobile and Ohio railroad. Now that man will be general freight agent of that road some day: he may be president of the road. But suppose he had sat down and gone to sleep, and had waited for some one to come to him to inquire the best way to ship freight. Do you suppose he would ever have secured any freight to ship?

Begin to think. If you cannot learn to think, why, you will be of no use to yourself or anybody else. Every once in a while; about every three months, we have to go through the process of "weeding out" among the students. We are going to make that "weeding out" process stricter this year than ever before. We are compelled to get rid of every student here who is weak in mind, weak in morals, or weak in industry. We cannot keep a student here unless he counts for one. You must count one yourself. You eat for one, you drink for one, and you sleep for one; and so you will have to count for one if you are going to stay here.

I want you to go out into the world, not to have an easy time, but to make sacrifices, and to help somebody else. There are those who need your help and your sacrifice. You may be called upon to sacrifice a great deal; you may have to work for small salaries; you may have to teach school in uncomfortable buildings; you may have to work in desolate places, and the surroundings may be in every way discouraging. And when I speak of your going out into life, I do not confine you to the schoolroom. I believe that those who go out and become farmers, and leaders in other directions, as well as teachers, are to succeed.

The most interesting thing connected with this institution is the magnificent record that our graduates are making. As the institution grows larger, we do not want to lose the spirit of self-sacrifice, the spirit of usefulness which the graduates and the students who have gone out from here have shown. We want you to help somebody else. We want you not to think of yourselves alone. The more you do to make somebody else happy, the more happiness will you will receive in turn. If you want to be happy, if you want to live a contented life, if you want to live a life of genuine pleasure, do something for somebody else. When you feel unhappy, disagreeable and miserable, to some one else who is miserable and to that person an act of kindness, you will find that you will be made happy. The miserable persons in this world are the ones whose hearts are narrow and hard; the happy ones are those who have great big hearts. Such persons are always happy.