Leadership Learning: A Thomas Jefferson Education by Oliver DeMille

A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the Twenty-first CenturyA Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the Twenty-first Century by Oliver Van DeMille
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I find it somewhat funny that I lived in Utah for three years and didn’t finally read this book until I’d moved to Massachusetts.

The book takes a fairly strong stance about public education, and it’s clear that DeMille holds the political view I think of as Utah Libertarian, but looking past those strong convictions, his assertions sound solid, and I plan to implement some of his ideas into my own homeschool curriculum.

This is basically a variation on a Classical Education as outlined by Jesse Wise and Susan Wise Bauer in their The Well-Trained Mind. Since I’m already a big fan of Classical Education, TJEd isn’t that huge a change. The big difference is that DeMille has distilled it significantly. Everything, according to DeMille, should be learned by reading the classics, including math, science, and foreign language.

The idea is that the Founders of the United States were all better educated than anyone taught during the second half of the 20th century on (during which time the US education system has increasingly relied on a conveyor-belt method of educating youth, according to DeMille and others), and that by going back to the way the Founders were taught, we can groom more effective, more eloquent, and more moral leaders.

I think I can agree with his basic premises, particularly that a teacher’s job is to inspire a student to do her/his own learning. A teacher can’t force a child to acquire knowledge, and she certainly can’t force a child to learn to think critically and logically address issues. The best a teacher can do is to encourage a student to want to learn things on her/his own.

I like his suggestion that time should be structured, but that what the child does during that time should not. We need, says DeMille, to enforce daily study times and routines, but that within those times, there should be a fair amount of freedom for children to study where their interests lead. In this model, the teacher’s role is to help a child see the connections between different academic disciplines within her/his particular area of interest.

So, if the child wants to learn about castles, the teacher can help him find information about the medieval period (politics, religion, scientific advances), principles of math and physics that go into castle building, the music popular during the time, the lifestyle of those living within the castle walls compared to that of the people outside the castle walls, etc. This helps children learn that facts in the real world aren’t actually compartmentalized into disciplines and that the separations we’ve made are a fairly recent innovation.

This last part isn’t a new idea, but the idea of the structured time during which the child leads the activities is a new one for me, and one that I think will work very well with the way my daughter learns.

In addition, I definitely want to read more classics on my own. I’d already determined that this is a sizable gap in my own education. Because I want to include classics in my children’s education, I need to read them myself so I can properly mentor my children and help them to determine where to start and then where to go next as they begin to tackle the classics.

I don’t plan on scrapping all other curricula and relying solely on classics. I still plan to use a math curriculum and I don’t plan on strictly adhering to DeMille’s Phases of Learning. But I think it makes perfect sense, along with other ways of exploring a subject, to go to the source and experience the way the great thinkers think and read the way great writers write. This is similar to the Suzuki Method in music: you expose children to great music early and often, and this helps them emulate the best musicians. I think the same would go for great thinkers and great writers.

If I want my children to be well-educated and great thinkers, it makes sense for them to learn from the best.

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7 Replies to “Leadership Learning: A Thomas Jefferson Education by Oliver DeMille”

  1. I read this a long time ago, and after talking to a die-hard TJed-er, I was convinced that it was the way to go. I homeschooled my daughter for kindergarten, but realized quickly that it wasn’t the best fit for us. We both needed more structure in order to really accomplish things. The empty hours led to a lot of time wasting, and I felt huge amounts of pressure to be designing their learning experiences. When we start homeschooling again in the fall, we’re going to be using k12, and we’ll see how it compares. I do really love most of the ideas there, and will probably work to incorporate some as we go.


    1. From what I got from the book, he says there’s not much you should do with a child until age 8. I don’t really agree with that, and I did have more structure for my daughter when she was younger, and still plan to have more structure than DeMille suggests as she gets older. But most of the structure we used for kindergarten was a daily reading lesson and then lots and lots of reading together. And flute, of course. Then this January we added Saxon Math. She tested into Math 2 with no structured math lessons, so I guess what I was doing must have worked okay.

      Since January, we’ve been really butting heads when I try to put myself too much into her lessons. I think I tend to over-manage. So for me, anything that gives me permission to step back and let her make discoveries on her own (or at least without so much direction from me) is very helpful. Since starting this book, I’ve actually stepped back on her flute practice, setting aside the time for it and enforcing that and being there to listen and give feedback when she asks for it, but letting her choose what she needs to work on. I was surprised to find that she’s more likely to work on stuff she’s having trouble with when I’m not suggesting it. It’s only been two days of that, but so far, so good. I think it works because we started with me giving her the structure of the lesson (and because she loves playing). I don’t think I could have done this effectively a year ago. I find it encouraging that most everyone I know uses a hybrid approach in their schooling. Helps me feel free to pick and choose what works for us.

      I do need to learn the secret to establishing routine. If you’ve got any tips there, I’m all ears.


  2. I have had this book on my to read list for a while now but have never seemed to get around it. Now I want to read it even more. : ) I stray away occasionally but seem to always come back to a relaxed classical style in the end. I think there would be a lot for me to think over while reading this. I am so happy that you wrote a review on it.
    I wonder what is this the one that encourages extra years of school at home before leaving for collage studying public speaking and debate?


    1. I don’t remember anything about extra years at home to learn public speaking and debate. What I remember is him saying that with a homeschool curriculum, a child is usually ready for college by about 16 or even younger, trying to stress that leadership learning doesn’t take more years than conveyor belt learning since the child is motivated and ends up spending hours and hours a day studying. Like I said, all-in-all I liked his ideas. There is still great appeal to the canned curriculum (the idea of TJEd feels a little exhausting), but I do think this way would result in a family who are better educated, myself included.


      1. Well that is good to know thank you for the clarification. Like I said I have not actually read it yet, still going on word of mouth. You have officially moved it further up on my to read list now.


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