How They Did It: Abraham Lincoln

Amid the mass of contradictory ideas about education, it's hard to know which way is up. A few things, however, are clear and certain.

History is filled with glowing examples of powerfully brilliant and effective people.

And some of them have left us with some valuable insights into how they were educated. Or (more often) how they educated themselves.

As I think about what I want for my children, I want to take their words very seriously. The sheer quantity of contradiction makes me think that my own reasoning powers are very likely to lead me astray on this extremely important topic. I need some solid authority.

It's not enough simply to listen to brilliant men give their hypothetical plans for how they would go about educating other people. They contradict each other all over the place, so clearly at least some of them are very wrong. This is one area where the truth matters very much, and one of the best ways I can think of for sorting it all out is to ask the truly well-educated how they got that way.

For starters, I bring you Abraham Lincoln, in this snippet of conversation with Rev. J.P. Gulliver, published September 4, 1864 in the Independant. (found here)

"But let me ask, did you not have a law education? How did you prepare for your profession?"
" Oh yes! I 'read law' as the phrase is; that is, I became a lawyer's clerk in Springfield, and copied tedious documents, and picked up what I could in the intervals of other work. But your question reminds me a bit of education I had which I am bound in honesty to mention. In the course of my law-reading I constantly came upon the word demonstrate. I thought, at first, that I understood its meaning, but soon became satisfied that I did not. I said to myself, 'What do I do when I demonstrate more than when I reason or prove? How does demonstration differ from any other proof?' I consulted webster's dictionary. That told of 'certain proof,' 'proof beyond the possibility of doubt;' but I could form no idea of what sort of proof that was. I thought a great many things were proved beyond a possibility of doubt, without recourse to any such extraordinary process of reasoning as I understoof 'demonstration' to be. I consulted all the dictionaries and reference books I could find, but ith no better results. You might as well have have defined blue to a blind man. At last I said, 'Lincoln, you can never make a lawyer if you do not understand what demonstrate means;' and I left my situation in springfield, went home to my father's house, and stayed their till I could give any propositions in the first six books of Euclid at sight. I then found out what 'demonstrate' means, and went back to my law studies."
I could not refrain from saying, in my admiration of such a development of character and genius combined, "Mr. Lincoln, your succeses is no longer a marvel. It is the legitimate result of adequate causes. You deserve it all and a great deal more. If you will permit me, I would like to uase this fact publicly. It will be most valuable in inciting our young men to that patient classical and mathematical culture which most minds absolutely require. No man can talk well unless he is able firswt of all to define to himself what he is talking about. Euclid, well studied, would free the world of half its calamities, by banishing half the nonsense which now deludes and curses it. I have often thought that Euclid would be one of the best books to put on the catalogue of the tract society, if they could only get people to read it. It would be a means of grace."
"I think so," he said laughing; "I vote for Euclid."



The smartest men who ever wrote were sometimes rather smart;
Perhaps I'll learn a thing or two by practicing their art.
And so I'm writing sonnets just as best as I am able,
Except for how I add the odd, and oddly said, syl-able.

A funny thing it is, the way the structure shapes the thought;
It seems a touch more arbitrary than it really ought.
The poem tends to turn in ways I never quite expected,
For words don't always go the places where they've been directed.

I used to think that Shakespeare wrote a lot of lovely rhyme,
But that's a thought that's fading with the spinning on of time.
Now I think that it was Shakespeare who was written by the sonnet--
If I would like to be wrote, too, I'd best be getting on it.


(A collaboration between small September and myself, over a McDonalds ice cream cone. I said I wanted to write a poem, so she told me what to write, and I wrote it. )

She says that Jabberwockies are some very scarry birds,
And Jabberwockies are the things to verse of with my words.
The Jabberwockies may be fierce, but she is unafraid.
I asked her how this could be so, and this is what she said:
I think you're funny of me.

Oh, what would happen if you had a toylike Jabberwock?
A funny thing to talk of; nonetheless we still will talk.
You'd turn it on its button--it would roar a fearsome roar--
But it would never bite you, says the learned Jabber lore.
Toy Jabberwocks snarl safely.

For I can write a 'T' or 'H', but not a single 'O'--
The 'T's and 'H's are quite straight, whilst 'O's are not--although
Some are. (Which ones?) The ones that do not want to wrinkled be.
So what's the purpose of this tale?
I think you're funny of me.


More on Picture Books

Thanks for the great comments. It's impossible to get clarity and perspective without... well... perspective. =)

I'm still in the middle of muddling through this issue, but if I had to say right now, I'd say that I think GOOD picture books are good... but that just being a book doesn't make it good. (And really, picture books are books in a very different sense from normal books, anyway...) I'm starting to rethink my "the more the merrier" policy on picture books, and the time we spend with them, but I don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Patti's comment has me thinking that there's a whole 'nother side to the question though. In addition to thinking about whether to read picture books to my children, and which picture books to read to them, perhaps I ought to be thinking harder about how to read them to my children. Patti writes:
I think there's something to be said for teaching your kids to "read" pictures as well as words--that these are skills that will translate when they watch TV and movies, and that learning to think critically about visual presentation is just as important as learning to criticize words and rhetorical presentation, especially in a world that is more and more dominated by the visual. That said, moderation is definitely key!

This is a very important point. I need to equip my children with the tools to understand images, and not be decieved and manipulated by them.

How do I make sure that I'm training them to understand images, not training them to be dependent upon them?


Picture Books

Everybody knows that if you want your kids to grow up into intelligent, literate, critical thinking people, you have to read to them lots and lots, starting when they are very very young. And everybody knows that the thing to read to the very young is picture books. Lots and lots of picture books, with lots and lots of brightly colored illustrations, and a few words sprinkled in here and there.

Everybody knows this, right?

Now I have lots of logical reasons and trustworthy authority to back up the idea that certain sorts of literature are extremely beneficial to small children... but it suddenly occurred to me that I believe picture books are indispensable precisely because the folks who bring us Sesame Street say so. Not to say anything against the sundry wonderfulnesses of Sesame Street--I like Cookie Monster as well as the next girl--but if you think that Sesame Street is the key to becoming an excellent reader, I have a few Nigerian bank accounts I'd like to sell you.

This doesn't necessarily mean that my belief about the importance of picture books was wrong. It does, however, mean that I had the wrong reasons for believing it.

Just because silly people believe something doesn't make it false, but it certainly doesn't make it true, either.

Picture books may, in fact, be incredibly important--but I need a better reason.

So can you help me out here?

Why should I read picture books to my kids?


Good Work

My Daddy has a great story about getting kicked out of school.


When he was homeschooled.

While his mother was busy with his brother and sister, he'd slip out the back door and ride his bike around the cow-paths. Finally Grandma gave up and told him "Go ahead and grow up to dig ditches." I can just hear her saying that, too. Grandma was quite a lady.


As a member of the board of directors for our townhouse association, Andrew's been pretty busy over the last week or so.

There's a bunch of rotten trim on some of the units, and we've hired a contracting company to replace it all. The crews are doing very high quality work... on about a third of affected boards. Now they've started caulking tidily over the rotten wood, and they're asking for clarification about paint colors. Andrew and the other board members have been going crazy trying to make sure they actually do the carpentry work, and don't just paint right over wood that's so soft you can stick your finger through it.

It's... been... very... frustrating.

I'm not sure what's going on--if they're trying to cheat us, or if there's some serious miscommunication, or what. And you know, I really don't want to know--wise as serpents, harmless as doves and all that. But what kills me is that every bit of this project is being done by human beings, made in the image of God. Human beings, made in the image of God, endowed by their Creator with reason, called by Him to rule the earth with order and reason in a glorious display of His magnificence... and they're skillfully caulking over squishy rotten wood.

We'll get the work done, one way or another. But the human tragedy makes me sick inside.


The spectre of ditch-digging kept driving Daddy back to his lessons... but the lovely hills of the Brazillian countryside would ever lure him out again.

Finally Grandma gave up for good, and sent him to a Christian boarding school back in the States. You know what they say about homeschooling not being for everyone? I guess it must be true.


We have a new landscape maintenance guy. I waved hello while I was out getting something from the car, and he put down his rake and offered a firm handshake. Exuding courtesy and professionalism, he spoke with me about his vision for improving the quality of the landscape. He was still waiting for some of his equipment, so at the moment he was only able to water those lawns which happened to have hoses right there, but he assured me that he would soon get the grass nice and green for us. He also mentioned that he was looking forward to getting a leaf blower... but in the meantime, it was obvious that he was cheerfully and thoroughly getting the job done with the limited tools at hand.

A few days later, I saw him out front again. "I see you've got your leaf blower now."

He grinned back at me. "I'm like a kid with a new toy!"


Off at boarding school, Daddy found a deep relationship with Christ, and became an earnest scholar, a serious thinker, and just the sort of young man to make any mother proud.

But his first job out of college was digging ditches, and Grandma never did let him forget it.


We went camping last weekend. We've been thinking so very hard about so many important things--I was looking forward to a break. But I guess the wilderness is not always a resting place. Sometimes it's simply the space to see where you've been all along. We thought about our thinking, and we thought some more, and most of it came back around to what we really want for our kids, educationally speaking. I guess it's just more of that same conversation that started in the writing center in Sutherland Hall, nine years ago.

We thought and we thought, and we talked and we talked, and you know what I realized? It really doesn't matter to me what work my children do. I want them to do good work, and I want them to do it well. If they grow up to dig ditches, that's just fine with me, as long as they bring the full and glorious dignity of their humanity to bear on their ditch-digging.

Perhaps they'll be doctors or lawyers or engineers... I hope to provide them with an education that will open up whatever vocational doors they choose to walk through. But oh, when they are stronger, and can choose what they're to do....

Mr. Stevenson, I hope they'll go 'round at night and light the lamps with you.


Since I've started categorizing my beliefs, I've discovered that I believe a lot of things on authority. That's not surprising in itself. I'm very small, and there's no way I could possibly figure out for myself everything I need to know. People who don't take anything on authority generally die from eating poisonous mushrooms. Or the fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden. Or legos, for that matter. (Oh how we miss the legos, now that Willie's dooping about...)

Of course I take things on authority. What's strange is that I accept on authority precisely those things that I think I'm basing on logic.

This is a terrific way to be duped.

We should take things on authority only from people we consider trustworthy. We must have reason to believe that they (a.) know what they're talking about, and (b.) are telling us the truth.

If we are serious about truth, we need to make wise judgments about which sources are trustworthy. We can only do that if we are conscious and intentional about it.

If we think we're operating on the basis of logic and evidence, we'll accept Edmund's testimony over Lucy's every time.

Which is a great way to get yourself conned.



I have a confession to make.

I always sort of assumed that epistemology was a dry and dusty discipline, mostly theoretical, with little to recommend it in the way of real-world application.

Not that I have anything against dry and dusty disciplines--in fact I've always found them fascinating. But, well... sort of in the same category as crossword puzzles or sudoku. Brilliant fun and all that, but that's about as far as it goes.

I feel very, very silly admitting to these thoughts. Of course if I'd ever actually thought about them explicitly, I would have denounced them immediately... but never having had occasion to put words to these assumptions, I was free to keep right on assuming them until quite recently.

So I shall now state the obvious(which was obviously not obvious to me).

Epistemology is terribly important for anyone who'd rather not be suckered.

If you want the truth about anything--anything at all, from how to make a good pancake to the origin of the universe--you'd jolly well better make sure you're skilled in the ways of knowing the truth about stuff.

So I've started asking myself "why?"

Not asking why it's true--I'm quite used to asking myself that question--but rather asking why I think it's true.

There's a subtle difference between the two questions, and they're both important. It's important to know what evidence supports your beliefs, but it's also important to know why you accept that evidence, and in what way that evidence supports your belief.

Do I believe this on the basis of reason, a compelling logical argument that I clearly understand? (Logos)

Or do I believe it on the say-so of a trustworthy authority? (Ethos)

Or is it simply because it resonates with my soul, and I know it must be so? (Pathos)


CPSIA Goes to the Farmers Market

Dear Congresswoman Lee,
Please vote no on H.R. 875: Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009. As written, this bill would effectively squash local farmers markets under mountains of paperwork. Eating locally grown food is a good idea at any time, and in the event of a major national disaster, it could very well become the only way to eat anything whatsoever. Please protect my right to buy local food from people I know and trust, without bureaucratic interference.

Mommy always warned me against accepting food from strangers. Unfortunately, it's pretty much unavoidable these days. Government regulations can help make that a little less dangerous--but I'd still rather buy food from my own neighbors.

Please protect my right to buy local food for my children. Vote NO on H.R. 875.

Thank you,
Elena Johnston


Hat tip to the Deputy Headmistress.

Contact your own representative here.

Baby Doll

"Mommy, I have a baby just like you!"

"That's wonderful, sweetheart. What's his name?"

"Oh, he doesn't have a name. He's fake. But YOUR baby's not fake!"


Lenten Carnival

You should head on over to Homemaking Through the Church Year, where Jessica is hosting a lenten carnival.

I know most evangelicals don't observe lent. And there's certainly nothing obligatory about it. But the themes that our liturgical brethren are thinking about during this season are important ones for every Christian.

One of the reasons why liturgical churches follow a unified yearly schedule is so as to facilitate a sort of worldwide conversation--lots of believers thinking about the same things all at once.

Right now they're thinking about repentance, and sanctification, and the costly grace that makes it possible. About the long, hard process of disentangling oneself from the things that keep us from being fully devoted to Christ. Living in the already and the not yet, waiting for Easter.

Of course, I don't agree with everything in all the posts, but I do think the conversation is worth listening in on.

Remember, O man, that thou are dust, and to dust thou shalt return...


In Which Kanga Decides She Really Must Read Some Cicero

There's an idea--a set of categories, really--floating about the intellectual waters hereabouts. I think it comes from Cicero, but I am sadly unaware as to which work. My exposure to Cicero is limited to De Amicitia, and involves quite possibly the most romantic attempted breakup story ever... but that's another tale for another time.

Now, where was I? Ah, yes. Epistemology.

Somebody once said, (and I think it was Cicero, but I'm not sure where) that there are four ways of knowing. Or perhaps it was of convincing; I think it matters not. At any rate, they are as follows: Logos (having to do, predictably enough, with logic), ethos (having to do with authority of character), and pathos (having to do with emotion and aesthetics.) The obligation to believe is produced through the union of these three elements.

I'm quite sure that I'm not doing these ideas justice at all, and I'm equally certain that they are of Extreme and Great Importance.

So I need to read some Cicero. And if anyone has any suggestions as to which particular works I need to read, I'd be quite grateful.

In the mean time, I'm finding that these categories have all sorts of uses in organizing the cluttered closets of one's mind.


CPSIA links

Here's the statement from the CPSC saying that "ordinary children's books published after 1985" are okay. (It's on page 4.) A footnote explicitly excludes books with plastic or metal parts.

Is this reassuring, or dreadful? Well, it all depends on how you spin it.

It sounds to me as though our freedom of speech is spinning swiftly down the drain.

Please, I beg of you, dear men and women of the Congress, convince me otherwise!

Walter Olson is providing fantastic coverage of the CPSIA issues, with lots of links.

And the Deputy Headmistress has a good many posts showing why we should care deeply about this issue. And phone numbers for whose switchboards to bombard. =)


Wait, wait, O my flesh.
Wait, and learn to trust.
Wait, for it is in the waiting you are sanctified.

Wait, wait, O my soul.
With patient longing, wait to be made holy.
Wait, for it is in the waiting that you learn to trust.


Depth of Texture

At 6 months, Willie spends most of his time closely examining sundry objects. It's just what you do when you're 6 months old, as inevitable and instinctual as the craving for mother's milk.

The merest twig is well worth close examination. The works of God are marvelous, and their beauty bears up even under a lifetime of inspection.

There is a time and a place for the bright flashing plastic, so demandingly undemanding, that lulls him into forgetfulness while I tend to other things.

Yes, there is most definitely a time and a place--but it is for my sake much more than his.

For his sake, the pinecones and leaves, that he may not strive endlessly after mudpies, but be content with the sea.