Getting the Education the Founders Got
There is a reason that many of us have become so interested in teaching our children about the men who founded the United States, and it goes beyond just becoming familiar with who they were and what they did. More than just teaching our children about these men through the histories and biographies that tell the stories of their lives, many of us are interested in our children becoming more like them.
The Founding Fathers possessed two characteristics that distinguished them from other men of their time—and from most men in any time: wisdom and virtue. It is these qualities that we admire most about them and that we would most like to see in our own children. But more important than just admiring them for these traits, we should strive to understand how they became this way.
The typical education in the time of the Founders is what we today would call “classical education.”It began in what we would call the third grade—about age 8—and the focus was on classical languages and the liberal arts. Students were required to learn Latin and Greek grammar, and, later, to read the Latin historians, the Greek historians, and Latin poetry. They were expected to be able to know these languages well enough to translate from the original into English and back again to the original in another grammatical tense.
Thomas Jefferson received early training in Latin and Greek from a Scottish clergyman, later attended a classical academy, and continued his classical education at the College of William and Mary. When Alexander Hamilton entered King’s College (now Columbia University) in 1773, he was expected to have a mastery of Greek and Latin grammar, be able to read three orations from Cicero and Virgil’s Aeneid in the original Latin, and be able to translate the first ten chapters of the Gospel of John from Greek into Latin. Even before James Madison entered the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), he had already read Vergil, Horace, Justinian, Nepos, Caesar, Tacitus, Lucretius, Eutropius, Phaedrus, Herodotus, Thucydides, and Plato.
It is interesting to note that Latin and Greek, which is largely what the term “classical education”originally implied, was not something students learned in college but something they were expected to know before they got there.
These men also read classical authors in adult life for pleasure and profit. Hamilton apparently had a penchant for copying Plutarch (the Roman) and Demosthenes (the Greek). John Adams would copy long passages of Sallust, the Roman historian. They knew these writers and quoted them prolifically. The correspondence between educated men of the time was commonly sprinkled with classical quotations, usually in the original Latin or Greek.
John Adams later grew to love Latin, but it was not always so. When he was young, in fact, he wasn’t always the most enthusiastic scholar, and he resisted studying his Latin. His father had a remedy for that: he sent him out to dig ditches, an activity which, after two days’ time, revived the young man’s enthusiasm for his schooling.
Even many who had little formal education, including George Washington himself, were often quite knowledgeable in classical subjects. The Virginian George Wythe, who later became known as the “Teacher of Liberty,”was educated by his mother at their backwoods home. His Greek was accounted by his contemporaries to have been perfect.
It is not uncommon to hear some today say that Christians should shy away from the pagan authors of antiquity. This is an idea the generation of the Founders— including great Christian thinkers such as Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards—would have considered simply preposterous. Not only was classical education conducted largely by ordained Christian ministers (or aspiring ones), but education in the classics was considered an essential element in the education of a Christian cleric.
The Founders’ knowledge of classical thought inculcated in them a respect for the lessons of history, lessons that were readily apparent in their writings and in their debates about how to construct the American Republic. “I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided,”said Patrick Henry, “and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past.”They combed the annals of the ancients for examples of governments that worked well—and for examples of those that did not. They knew, well before the philosopher George Santayana was born to say it, that “those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it.”
To become inspired by the great deeds of great men is to give ourselves the motivation to do similar things. We become great partly by seeing what other great men did and being inspired to do such things ourselves. But while beholding the great deeds of others gives us the motivation to be like them, it doesn’t equip us to achieve what they achieved. We can admire other men, but that won’t necessarily make us more like them. In order to become like those we admire, we must not only admire them; we must do what they did.
It is tempting to look back on the education of these great Americans and think that what they did was too difficult for the students of today. But that would be a grave mistake. Yes, they enjoyed some advantages over us, mostly in terms of having fewer distractions. But that is something we have the power to control. The fact is that we have advantages they didn’t have. For example, the educational resources available to colonial children were not only harder to find but of vastly inferior quality. We can, moreover, say we lack their fortitude, but that is not something they brought to their education; rather, it is a benefit they received from it.
Education is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue. In deciding how to accomplish it with our own children, we would do well to imitate how it was done in a time when wisdom and virtue were more prevalent than in our own.