Friday, August 31, 2012

Do as TJ Said, Not as He Did, Except Sometimes

Martha "Patsy" Jefferson
Let's get this straight: I'm not recommending we follow most of Thomas Jefferson's advice on education.  A forward thinker in many areas, his views on education were often confined by his position as a Privileged White Guy.

Check him out, writing to his daughter, Patsy.  He starts out manipulative, "The acquirements which I hope you will make under the tutors I have provided for you will render you more worthy of my love, and if they cannot increase it they will prevent it's diminution." Then TJ follows with a curriculum entirely lacking in the subjects most interesting to him; math, science, classical history, philosophy, and comparative theory of government:

"With respect to the distribution of your time the following is what I should approve.
  • from 8. to 10 o'clock practise music.
  • from 10. to 1. dance one day and draw another
  • from 1. to 2. draw on the day you dance, and write a letter the next day.
  • from 3. to 4. read French.
  • from 4. to 5. exercise yourself in music.
  • from 5. till bedtime read English, write &c."
Poor Patsy; I wonder if she ever said anything her father was remotely interested in. For future voters, of course, TJ held education in the highest regard. His essays on the topic did what his writings often did, which is to reflect the highest refinement and cleanest meat of the current argument for his side, which was in this case in 1778, the side of public education:

"Laws will be wisely formed, and honestly administered, in proportion as those who form and administer them are wise and honest; is better that such should be sought for and educated at the common expence of all, than that the happiness of all should be confided to the weak or wicked:.."

TJ invented the revolving book holder
I want this so much.
When I can read that without hearing, "except for girls, and black folk like some of my grandkids, and certainly not Indians," I find it heartening and true and still so relevant. If Patsy ever read it, I imagine it got on her nerves.

That's the trick here -- to use Thomas Jefferson as an example of an agile, searching, tremendously creative mind, and as example of someone who did real and permanent good in our society . . . without taking all of his contradictory advice literally.  What's inspiring and admirable about TJ to me is the way he used every bit of what he learned to do something cool--from designing (and redesigning and redesigning) his own house and gardens to using the French he learned as a teen to bring the French around to our side during the revolution and after. He read Plutarch's Lives in Latin and used his analysis of the leadership shown to come to conclusions like the one about education above.

TJ's formal education involved lectures, dead languages, rote memorization, and lots of math and logic problems(1)No self-respecting educator would prescribe such a curriculum to kids of today.  But what his example tells us, or at least me, is that the pressure to purchase or learn the latest curriculum is false.

Even Thomas Jefferson didn't foresee the skills his own daughter would really need or that would make her happy. We don't know that about our kids, either. Instead, the pressure on us as teachers and community members is to help kids recognize internal motivation and to act on their best impulses with persistence and curiosity; to make them capable of pursuing life, liberty, and the happiness in ways we never dreamed of.

This video from of Ewan McIntosh at TEDxLondon  is one of those fun times where someone on the internet says what I'm thinking much, much more elegantly than I have (Am assuming here that my vast readership missed the first time I linked to this video):

So maybe Latin isn't the only way to get kids there. Neither is MangaMath. But I think there are some principles that have given us active, hungry problem finders, compassionate, organized, effective leaders, wise followers, and beautiful voices over the centuries. I'll be thinking about those in this space this year.

1. Peterson, Merrill D., ed., The Political Writings of Thomas Jefferson, (Thomas Jefferson Foundation,1993), 18,19.

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