A Thomas Jefferson Education

Demille, Oliver. A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the Twenty-First Century.

Fear not. This book has little of Jefferson in it, in case you are bothered by his Deism, slavery, and defense of Lockean politics. One shouldn’t read this book as a manual on how to do education. I gather that other books in the series do that. The best approach might be counter-intuitive: read it as an inspiration manual.

Demille’s argument is simple: the best way to train leaders is to get them to read the classics in dialogue with a wise mentor. This skirts the debate between classical vs. private vs. public education. Demille offers a tool, not an ideology. Like many texts that lean towards the classical model, the volume is weak on math and science, but it still works quite well on the arts and humanities.

He begins with a distinction some might find artificial but upon further inspection is quite profound: you cannot “fix” education. An education is what the student gets out of the process largely based upon the student’s effort. What you can fix is teaching and externals. “Teachers teach and students educate” (Demille 12). The best education is when the student gets excited about learning and goes from there (with guidance).

He notes the three types of education: conveyor belt, professional, and leadership. It is fashionable to mock the conveyor belt approach (presentation of facts, etc). There is nothing wrong with that approach. It accomplishes precisely what it was designed to: educate poor people so they can get a job. The professional approach is fairly obvious: medicine, business, etc.

Demille’s focus is the leadership approach to education. It’s purpose is to train leaders who perpetuate freedom by knowing how to think. (A textbook teaches you want to think; a classic teaches you how to think.)

I won’t spend too much time on Demille’s method except to note a few good points. One is to “structure time, not content” (45). Is it better to make the student read 50 pages of Thomas Aquinas or spend two hours analyzing what Thomas means by essence and being? Go deeper, not wider.

There is the tough question of “What is a classic?” I’ll keep the list open-ended, but we can say a book that was formative upon the Western mind.

Can I get a Job?

Since we are now at the point where a university education does not guarantee a (good?) job, education is freed to be more formative and soul-forming. Modern America replaced leadership with job prep. While modern education gurus urge teachers to ask higher-order thinking questions, and while textbooks are happily being replaced with “modules,” the system is fundamentally the same.

Employers hire people, not degrees. (That said, don’t do anything stupid like go to Patriot Bible College. I’m also quite skeptical of a certain “Reformed” college in the Pacific Northwest). As Peter Drucker said, “The basic economic resource…is no longer capital…It is and will be knowledge” (115).


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