A Thomas Jefferson Education – Book Review

If you have not read this book, I recommend it highly. It has really made me think about educational goals and the possible results of a more classical education (classical as in studying the classics, not classical as in our schools of the past 70 years or so).

From the description of the three systems of schooling – Conveyor Belt, Professional Education and Leadership Education – to a frank appraisal of our leadership vacuum, Oliver DeMille had my attention.

Basically, he challenges us as parents to study the classics and then encourage our children to do so as well, suggesting that the parent/child relationship should be one of mentor/student.

DeMille talks about the stages of learning:

  • Core Phase, from 0-8 years of age, with lessons of good/bad, right/wrong, true/false, all accomplished through work/play. DeMille suggests that pushing learning how to read on these ages is a bad idea and instead, children should be read to as much as possible, to prepare them to be lifelong readers later.
  • Love of Learning Phase, from the ages of 8-12 (often earlier for girls), where the number of hours in a day devoted to learning will increase over time as student transitions to the next phase.
  • Scholar Phase, ages 12-16, where work and study time increase even more, often culminating in a move towards higher education
  • Depth Phase, ideally between 16-22, characterized by a profound hunger to prepare for oncoming responsibilities and future contributions to society. This is typically in a college setting.

One of the questions that arose as I read the book was What if I, or my child, have no wish to be a leader? DeMille addresses this, noting that not everyone will end up being a leader, but with a classical education, they will be able to tackle educational or career challenges far easier than those who are raised in a conveyor belt education system. He notes that, until about 70 years ago, most quality education systems expected children to study the classics and learn from them.

He also points out that what we think of ‘the classics’ should not and is not limited to literary classics. Instead, there are classics in each field of study, the Principia Mathematica or the work of Euclid in Math, and the Declaration of Independence or Plutarch, Gibbon, Toynbee and Durant for History, for example.

Now I looked up the Principia Mathematica on Amazon and went through some of the sample pages (see link to book below). At first blush, I don’t understand a word of it. That said, I did kind of panic upon seeing the different symbols and talk of variables…it’s been a while since I took Algebra, after all.

What DeMille is proposing is difficult and daunting, but not impossible. The following passage made me stop and think…

Which [educational system and career] do you want for your children? If you want to be in low-income, production, service, government jobs, you ought to be in a conveyor belt school; because that’s what it will prepare you for, and it will do it effectively.

DeMille includes several lists – one from Harvard, another from Princeton, and a third from George Wyeth College (named after Thomas Jefferson’s mentor) – all listing education/career goals for their graduates.

Harvard’s List

  • The ability to define problems without a guide.
  • The ability to ask hard questions which challenge prevailing assumptions.
  • The ability to quickly assimilate needed data from masses of irrelevant information.
  • The ability to work in teams without guidance.
  • The ability to work absolutely alone.
  • The ability to persuade others that your course is the right one.
  • The ability to conceptualize and reorganize information into new patterns.
  • The ability to discuss ideas with an eye toward application.
  • The ability to think inductively, deductively, and dialectically.

That last one, “to think inductively, deductively, and dialectically” had me scrambling for the dictionary. There are different ways of thinking?!

Inductive -of, pertaining to, or employing logical induction: inductive reasoning.
Deductive -based on deduction from accepted premises, as in deductive argument; deductive reasoning
Dialectic -of, pertaining to, or of the nature of logical argumentation.

Note: This also led to a fun, rather cerebral distraction of Word Dynamo on Dictionary.com where they give you a weird word and ask for it’s meaning. It’s timed, fun and challenging. Check it out!

Princeton Skills

  • The ability to think, speak, and write clearly.
  • The ability to reason critically and systematically.
  • The ability to conceptualize and solve problems.
  • The ability to think independently.
  • The ability to take initiative and work independently.
  • The ability to work in cooperation with others and learn collaboratively.
  • The ability to judge what it means to understand something thoroughly.
  • The ability to distinguish the important from the trivial, the enduring from the ephemeral.
  • Familiarity with different modes of thought (including quantitative, historical, scientific, and aesthetic.)
  • Depth of knowledge in a particular field.

Wythe Skills

  • The ability to understand human nature and lead accordingly.
  • The ability to identify needed personal traits and turn them into habits.
  • The ability to establish, maintain and improve lasting relationships.
  • The ability to keep one’s life in proper balance.
  • The ability to discern truth and error regardless of the source, or the delivery.
  • The ability to discern true from right.
  • The ability and discipline to do right.
  • The ability and discipline to constantly improve.

Somehow, the last list rings best with me.

Throughout this book are many references to a classic book – the Bible. Now, I’m secular, very much so. My husband is a Taoist, I’m agnostic with confused leanings.

That said, I have no issue with reading the Bible. While DeMille argues that secular ideals are not in line with those of a classical education, I have to disagree. All of these works, including the Bible, have a place in our home.

A client of mine once professed surprise that I had read the Bible at all, “It’s like reading a love letter addressed to someone else!” she told me. Later she admitted she had never read the Bible…at all.

When I told my husband about this he laughed and said, “That’s like getting a letter and saying you agree with every bit of it, without ever reading it in the first place!”

Reading the Bible, or the Koran, or even the Book of Mormon is, I believe, a part of a classical education. If for no other reason than to compare and contrast, and to understand better others belief systems.

DeMille addresses college and suggests that a degree in Liberal Arts gives the individual the opportunity to move into more fields than just a specific degree would do. This degree bestows the versatility and critical thinking skills that may be missing in many of the others. DeMille quotes David Reed, director of Anderson Consulting, who says, “We look for people who are smart. We look for someone who is a critical thinker, someone who examines the pros and cons of a decision before deciding…” He also quotes Nick Burkholder, AVP of Corporate Staffing for Cinga Corporation, “Many companies actually seek out liberal arts graduates. The liberal arts degree is the best degree for a career in business. It starts the process of thinking…”

He goes on to quote statistics that state that “only 37% of the CEO’s queried said that the purpose of a degree is to acquire work skills. Ninety percent of business leaders called the humanities essential to developing critical thinking and 77% said they are necessary for problem-solving skills. As far as the employability of liberal arts graduates, business has learned what schools should remember: that thinking comes before doing, because thought guides deeds.”

Food for thought for those of you with college-age kids…

Appendix A lists “100 Selections from the George Wythe College Classics List” and the list is imposing. In Appendix B, there are two lists, one for reading to young children and the other labeled “Classics for Youth.” An important thing to note, although it is not specifically said, is to make sure you don’t read the bastardized, abbreviated versions of some of these classics. In other words, anything beginning with ‘Disney’ is out of the question. Have, and read, the original Andersen’s Fairy Tales, Aesop’s Fables, and so on. I was excited to see just how many of the books from both of these lists I had read, or had read to me.

And just in case you don’t have enough reading to do in preparation for this daunting classical education system, don’t forget Appendix E, which lists Recommended Readings that include works by Adler, Covey, Gatto, Holt and more. I was pleased to see I had a large number of the books listed.

In summary, A Thomas Jefferson Education is a lot to take on. But with some small tweaks here and there, I think that is well worth the effort. An education of the classics could truly give your child a leap above untold numbers of others (as if being homeschooled didn’t already do that) and give them the strength to lead – in whatever career or future they choose – and to be truly successful and knowledgeable.

I think I will be taking that leap – I figure it will be as good for me as it is for her!

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2 Responses to A Thomas Jefferson Education – Book Review

  1. How is your leap going? I am curious as to your further thoughts.

    • Christine says:

      Slowly. Emily is very outspoken about her reading choices and lately we have been going through a “that’s boring” stage. Partially due to my own bad experiences as a child, I do not wish to force the learning onto her. So…for now, she’s not interested in Aesop’s Fables and other age-appropriate suggested material, but we will re-visit that at regular intervals. Right now she is very into Shel Silverstein and is really ‘getting’ the unspoken inferences in his writing. If that’s what moves her, then that is what we will read…for now!