The Legacy of U.S. Education
By Travis Copeland
The erosion of classical education in the United States needs to be a national concern.
The American Presidency stands on the shoulders of a classical education. Of the forty-five men to hold the office (there have been forty-six actual presidencies, as Grover Cleveland twice in separate terms), more than two-thirds obtained some form of classical education. Many of the recent presidents, especially the twenty-first century ones, have been subjected to modern, industrialized forms of education with a strict focus on law. However, the American Presidency, historically, resides on the shoulders of classical languages, great books, logic, and rhetoric, which has played no minor or inconsequential role on the national stage, albeit hidden from view. The great thinkers of the Classical, Medieval, and Early Modern eras made a profound impact on many Presidents, and consequently they have, through the Presidency, made an impact on the United States. Even the concept of the Presidency and the American government has classical roots. Yet, most people are wholly unaware of the importance that classical education has played in American politics. Most significantly in those men who did not merely obtain a degree, they began to develop a true education, absorbing and engaging the great ideas with tenacity, love, and a pursuit of virtue.
Of the many early American Presidents, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were arguably the best educated. These future presidents and sons of the colony of Virginia were well trained in the entirety of the classical tradition, and their vast knowledge extended into every facet of colonial life. Law featured prominently for Jefferson, who studied logic, rhetoric, Greek and Latin, and philosophy as part of his desire to practice. Yet the more basic practices of classical education were hidden beneath the higher minded ones.
Jefferson kept a Common Place Book for most of his life, beginning young, and continuing into much of his adult life. He copied vast amounts of philosophy: Montesquieu, Aristotle, Plato, and Demosthenes feature prominently in his early days. Classical education and the tradition took hold of Jefferson, fueling his intellectual life and his presidency. Madison, maybe even more than Jefferson, absorbed the classics. His study of political and traditional philosophy were accompanied by not only Greek and Latin, but Hebrew. Madison loved the classical world so much, he stayed on an additional year after graduating to increase his fluency in Hebrew. He kept copious notes and bought books constantly. His learning shaped the Presidency, for Madison was the chief contributor in the formation of the U.S. Constitution. Without classical education Madison would not have been the man he was, and the Constitution—even the United States as a whole—would not be what it is today in its political formation and ideals.
As influential as Madison, Abraham Lincoln received surprisingly little education: he passed the bar without any legal schooling. Lincoln acquired his knowledge mostly through borrowed books. Lincoln’s education preceded his patch-work legal training. While on the frontier as a young boy in Kentucky and Indiana, Lincoln learned to read and studied the few books he could obtain. (Legend has it he learned to write with a buzzard quill, shot with a relative’s gun.) Poverty and life on the western frontier made formal schooling both impractical and difficult to obtain; yet Lincoln persisted, and his desire to be learned became the stuff of legend.
The earliest works of Lincoln’s education were Æsop and the Bible. Eventually, he would have access to Shakespeare, which he immensely enjoyed, and Euclid. Still eager to expand his education, Lincoln studied Euclid voraciously while serving in the House of Representatives. Lincoln’s education grew with his public influence—he never ceased classically educating himself. He recognized its importance, and he truly loved the goodness in it. From Lincoln to the early twentieth century, education in America continued to value classical learning.
However, industrialization began to remake schooling, work, home, and everything in between. While many twentieth century presidents received a classical education their hunger for it, and the hunger of Americans in general, would begin to decline. The fervor of Jefferson, Madison, and Lincoln was slowly replaced with practical studies in law and political experience.
The Roosevelt Presidents, Theodore and Franklin, were classically trained at Harvard in a time when higher education was still closely associated with the pursuit of truth, though a shift was beginning to seep through. Teddy Roosevelt never took to Greek and Latin, although he studied them intermittently as a boy and at Harvard. Still, philosophy, rhetoric, and natural science grew Teddy’s love for the past. His piecemeal classical education enhanced his person, while his drive for success and adventure further developed his character and vast variety of experiences.
Unlike Teddy, Franklin Roosevelt had a stronger upbringing in classical French and German languages and topics within the tradition. FDR would go on to study law at Columbia after Harvard. In all his education, Roosevelt’s aim was a career much like the elite of his day: politics. Regardless, the imprint of classical learning changed Roosevelt. Studying history provided him a historical consciousness that allowed him to lead in the turmoil of the Depression and Second World War. Even with FDR, the broad scope of classical education began to wane as the United States moved deeper into the 20th century. Modernization and practical skills began to kill good, truthful pursuits that had long endured in grade school and undergraduate educations.
Harry Truman was deeply influenced by Shakespeare and the poetry and prose of the great books. Remarkably, his education as a boy in Missouri was minimal. However, Truman educated himself, alongside a spare Presbyterian Church schooling. His love for literature was a theme of the White House. Recovering what was lost in childhood, he advocated for the greatness of Shakespeare, Dante, Homer, and Virgil. When overwhelmed by the responsibilities of office, longing to escape the pressure, he wanted to read the great books. As one story goes, during a set of hearings in Washington, witnesses remarked that Truman repeatedly “talked of just going away somewhere and reading Shakespeare and Plutarch ‘over and over and over.’” They were better than the most powerful office in the world. They were truly good, and they were a kind-of refuge that he sought amidst the political chaos of the early Cold War.
Classical education has formed the office of the President more than in any other single thing in U.S. history. Yet, many other things receive credit for influence. Greek books, ancient languages, and the arts of rhetoric and logic have formed the men of the office for centuries. Through war, economic turmoil, and internal strife, American presidents led out of their character, intellect, and education. It has served both them and the nation well, and we need more of it. Not just in the national leadership—classical education is needed in the citizenry too. “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization” wrote Jefferson, “it expects what never was and never will be.” The nation needs classical education, and it begins in our ordinary schools putting the beautiful and the good of classical education before every student, every day.
Travis Copeland holds a BA in history and humanities, and is studying for an MA in history; he teaches history and Latin at Covenant Classical in Charlotte, NC. When not writing and teaching, Travis aspires to a hobbit lifestyle of poetry, gardening, baking, and conversation with good company around good food.
If you enjoyed this piece, take a look at some of our other material here at the Journal, like this profile of Marcel Proust, or this essay from one of our top students on Macbeth.
Published on 16th March, 2022. Page image of The Apotheosis of Washington by Constantino Brumidi, 1865, in the U.S. Capitol rotunda (source).