Stepping Outside the Cave: The Education of Frederick Douglass

“Some men know the value of education by having it. I know its value by not having it.”

—Frederick Douglass, Blessings of Liberty and Education

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in 1818 in Talbot County, Maryland. In 1826, he was given to the Auld Family and moved to the city of Baltimore. It was here that young Frederick began reading and writing lessons taught by his mistress Sophia Auld. Sophia, young and unfamiliar with the culture of slave-ownership, didn’t even realize that she was breaking the law with her lessons.

Sophia’s husband, Hugh, forbade any further education to be given to the young Frederick, not just because it was against the law but for why it was against the law. An educated slave will become dissatisfied with his condition and desire to be free. Hugh scolded her, “if you teach a slave how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave…..and of no value to his master…..it would make him discontented and unhappy.”

Frederick overheard the exchange and recalled, “These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation….I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement and I prized it highly. From that moment I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom….what he (my master) so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn.”

Douglass would later find his way to freedom and become a powerful voice in the abolitionist movement. But he did not stop there. He also used his vocabulary, voice and influence for the rights of others, including women and the poor. Douglass was guided by his experience, morals and values and he saw connection as the best way to affect change in the world and in his country. Later in life he would become an influential statesman. He valued the American system of government and the ways that it caused leaders with differing ideologies to come together under the US Constitution for the consideration and benefit of all its citizens. He insisted that America must live up to her ideals.

Douglass’ legacy in American history is firm. And to think it all started with a simple reading lesson. Literacy was Douglass’ way out of bondage, education was Douglass’ way out of the cave.

I invite you to use Douglass’ seminal autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave as a stepping stone out of your cave.


This month we are focusing on how learning frees us. We are excited to announce our first Revolution Study Group. On October 12th you can join us online to discuss excerpted sections from the powerful autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.

Leading a Revolution in Education will be giving away copies in anticipation. We will be announcing the sections that we will cover in our group discussion and other pertinent details soon.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave is an important piece of American literature. It will inspire gratitude for the teachers in your life who brought you where you are today. And it will compel you to interminable education.

Come read with us. Save the date of October 12, 2021 with more details to follow.

Published by Dean Forman

I am co-founder and CEO of the John Adams Academies, an institution that is perhaps the most unique charter school system in America today. The Academies’ curriculum is designed to give its students an American Classical Leadership Education®. This is an education that pursues truth, beauty and goodness and turns its scholars outward in search of those whom they can serve in becoming servant leaders. This website is dedicated to sharing the concepts of an American Classical Leadership Education with its readers so that more citizens can benefit from the truth, virtue and wisdom of the past. The thoughts and opinions I share on this page are my personal views.

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