3.31.2009

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."

2 comments:

S.J. Palmer said...

Hey, did you ever read that book on John Von Neumann that Dad has? It has a lot to say about education.

Elena said...

Long time ago, and partially. Thanks for reminding me of it. =)