A 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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