A recent conversation with my friend and business partner, Stronz, led me to write this blog about education, but just in case you’ve never listened to our podcasts or read one of my blogs, let me start at the beginning. Hi, I’m Jeromy, I was home-schooled since third grade and I recently graduated from one of the largest private colleges in America. As you can probably guess this makes me… not quite anti-public-school… but almost.
So what is it that I really don’t like about public schools? Well, it’s the fact that we’ve gotten so far away from basic education that we’re actually using tax dollars to pay for little Timmy’s flute lessons, or to teach little Sally to make pottery or to teach Sally and Timmy how to properly use a condom and what the benefits are. We could all argue till we’re blue in the face about how this benefits society and how little Timmy’s flute lessons help him learn math better and how condoms are better for everybody because we don’t think we need anymore unplanned Timmys or Sallys, but I digress.
The point that I was actually making to Stronz, and that I’m making here, is that basic education is the gateway to all other education. Once we have given children the ability to read and do some basic math, we have given them the ability to learn almost everything else that they will need for life. I could back this up with statistics or studies, but that’s not really my style. What I’d like to do is tell you about three guys from history that made a profound impact on America with only very basic formal education under their belts. Hopefully, these are guys that you really don’t know that well and you will learn a little something from us.
The first guy I’ll tell you about is definitely the least famous. His name is George Walton and he was from Georgia. George’s family grew up relatively poor, and he really didn’t have much by way of formal education. At the age of 14 he started as an apprentice to a carpenter. This Carpenter, that he was apprenticing under, thought that it was a bad idea to allow kids to study while apprenticing, so he didn’t give George anytime during the day to do any reading. George, being a young man with an inquiring mind, decided to take his education into his own hands. Every night he would spend a little time by campfire light educating himself. This was only possible because he was already given the ability to read.
So could anything good possibly happen in this situation, or was George just doomed to a life as a lowly carpenter? Well actually, George is one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. George went on to do another apprenticeship, this time in law. He apprenticed for a few years then started his own practice in 1774 having never attended a single day of law school. He quickly climbed the socioeconomic ladder and in the winter of 1776, Georgia elected him to be one of their five delegates to the second Continental Congress. George Walton’s name is memorialized on that sacred document next to such names as John Adams, John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson, and many other highly educated men. All because an inquisitive young man dedicated himself to self education.
The next guy is a little more famous, but not so well known as Washington or Jefferson or some of those guys; his name is Henry Knox. When Henry Knox was nine years old his father left his mother and the rest of his family. This left the care of the entire family on the shoulders of young Henry Knox. Knox went out and found a job in a bookstore. Since he was employed full-time he had almost no time left for his education but, he made a deal with the store owner that he would work there for his pay plus the privilege of borrowing whatever books he needed from the store. Henry took a great interest in warfare and focused most of his reading in that area.
Well, several years went by and Henry Knox was still working at the bookstore and reading as much as he could. When the American revolution broke out the patriots were in a great need for man who understood warfare. Although Henry Knox had never fired a shot in any battle, he did possess a great knowledge that he learned from books. When General Washington showed up in Boston to take command of the army in that area he noticed that the patriots had built fortifications that were worthy of a true military. When he asked who was in charge of building these fortifications the answer, of course, was Henry Knox. Although Henry Knox had no real command, he did have ability. Henry Knox didn’t go on to be a great statesman, although he did spend some time in the Massachusetts state house, but he did go on to become the first Secretary of War (later called Secretary of Defense) under the 1787 Constitution. Not bad for a bookkeeper with no real formal education to speak of.
Our last patriot, you can guess, also didn’t have very much formal education and is more well-known than the previous two. His name is Patrick Henry. Henry did go to, what we would call, grade-school and maybe even a little of what we would call high school. He had no college to speak of and he was married fairly young. His father set him up as a shopkeeper in the local town. Though Patrick proved not to be very good at that. Later he found himself working in a pub, basically as a bartender. But he found out how he could take advantage of that situation. His bar was not too far from the local courthouse and so every evening lawyers would come through the door and Patrick Henry would ask them about their case, what they were working on and what the judge’s decision was.
Day after day Patrick, would pick the brain of every lawyer that walked through the door and eventually decided to ask one of them what book he should read to help him know the subject of law. The lawyer suggested a very popular law textbook of the time. Patrick Henry went out and bought it, read the book from cover to cover, and then decided that he would take the Virginia bar exam without a single day of law school. George Wythe, who was also signer of the Declaration of Independence, was one of the two people who administered the bar exam to Patrick Henry. Wythe was a famous law school teacher, Thomas Jefferson’s law instructor as well as James Monroe’s and several other popular politician’s from the time. He was no pushover. But even without a single minute of law school, or a law apprenticeship, Patrick Henry still passed the bar exam and George Wythe signed off on his license to practice law.
Patrick Henry went on to be a famous lawyer, but probably his most well known act was his famous “give me liberty or give me death” speech, given in St. John’s Church in Richmond Virginia. After hearing the speech Thomas Jefferson declared from that day forward he was a radical and he meant that in a good way. Although Patrick Henry didn’t sign the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution or vote for the Bill of Rights, nobody can deny that he was one of the most influential of all the founding fathers. Not bad for a guy that never took a day of law school and earned his license to practice law from simply reading a book.
Now at this point there’s someone out there reading this saying “Jeromy you’re crazy, we can’t just teach a kid to read and then let them go off on their own.” Well, mystery person saying that, Duh. Kids need structure, they need influence, they need their parents teaching them other good things that they might not be able to learn in a book. They need parents teaching them good morals. They need parents teaching them how to be parents. They need parents to be their primary educators. All of that said, we have probably over thought the idea of modern education.
Do we really need little Timmy to get a flute lesson from his school? Or can his parents just get him flute lessons if they think that’s what will help him? Do we really need Sally to be learning how to make pottery at the expensive of the taxpayers? Look, you want to have a public education program, great! But, let’s keep it simple. The founders believed in a public education system, they spoke about it in the 1787 compact, but, most of the subject matters of public education at the time was reading, writing and basic arithmetic. And these really are the only principles that a child absolutely needs to succeed in life. Not to say that a child won’t need to learn more than that to have a good career or to simply be good at something, but once he has been given the ability to learn, he can teach himself what ever he needs to know.