The lack of schooling in the formation of one of every four U.S. presidents underscores the paradox that even the most humble among them were often great champions of education in general and of the liberal arts in particular…
Most of us in higher education want the answer to be a reassuring “yes.” In truth, a resounding “maybe not” better describes our civilization’s long engagement with the topic.
Since antiquity, the value of the liberal arts in forming future leaders has been debatable. Plato groomed Dionysius the Younger to be a philosopher-king at the head of the Greek colony of Syracuse, yet the experiment turned out disastrously. Aristotle tutored Alexander the Great, the greatest general of the ancient world, but the conqueror’s excesses made him a dubious standard-bearer of the liberal arts. Cicero sent his son Marcus to Athens to study under the best minds, but to his father’s disappointment the youth did not profit by the experience.
More recently, there emerged the monstrous modern type known as der gebildete Nazi (the cultivated Nazi), who had been liberally educated in the Gymnasium. By night he listened to Bach and read Goethe. By day he exterminated Jews. While the Nazi elite were hardly models of leadership, the opportunity for superb intellectual and moral formation in the Weimar Republic cast doubt on the truism that a liberal education was necessarily a humanizing education.
Moreover, numerous historical figures never obtained a liberal education but became leaders of the first order. Moses, Charlemagne, Muhammad, Genghis Khan, and Joan of Arc come to mind. We will never know whether exposure to the liberal arts in their formative years would have made these giants greater leaders.
Perhaps because our nation was founded, as Alexander Hamilton put it, through deliberation and with a flourish—claiming to inaugurate nothing less than “a new order for the ages”—Americans have tended to buck history. Even at the outer limits of Western civilization, Americans were more optimistic (or less cynical) than most other peoples when it came to the role of the liberal arts in the intellectual and moral formation of citizen-leaders. From colonial days this belief was implanted in Americans’ cultural DNA. Every New England village had its schoolhouse. Every Tidewater plantation had a tutor for its scions. Every frontier settlement taught its children to read and interpret the Bible.
Americans’ faith in humane learning entered the law of the land at the beginning of the nation’s audacious experiment with ordered freedom. During the summer of 1787, when the framers were drafting the U.S. Constitution in Philadelphia, delegates to the Confederation Congress in New York City wrote, in Article 3 of the Northwest Ordinance, “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”
Two generations later Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America gave two cheers to the liberal arts: “It cannot be doubted that, in the United States, the instruction of the people powerfully contributes to the support of a democratic republic; and such must always be the case, I believe, where instruction which awakens the understanding is not separated from moral education which amends the heart. But…true information is mainly derived from experience; and if the Americans had not been gradually accustomed to govern themselves, their book-learning would not assist them much at the present day.”
Let’s pause over Tocqueville’s observation, for it is apt today. He is saying that a liberal education is of limited value if it leads neither to moral improvement nor to better self-government. Indeed, self-government is the prior condition that makes liberal education profitable to citizens at all.
The Frenchman’s observation helps explain why our nation has had an abiding faith in the nexus between the liberal arts and the formation of citizen-leaders. Our hope in the liberal arts is especially apparent in an unexpected source: our presidents. It is unexpected because eleven of the forty-three men who have served as president either did not attend or did not finish college. But being unschooled does not equate with being uneducated. The lack of schooling in the formation of one of every four U.S. presidents underscores the paradox that even the most humble among them were often great champions of education in general and of the liberal arts in particular.
Let’s briefly survey three presidents who lived out this paradox.
George Washington: Civility and Self-Sacrifice
We’ll begin with our first president, George Washington. Even though Washington was born into Virginia’s minor gentry, and even though his family hired tutors to impart a respectable degree of knowledge in its scions, he would always feel embarrassed that he did not possess the formal schooling of Adams (Harvard), Jefferson (William and Mary), Hamilton (Columbia), or Madison (Princeton). Most of Washington’s learning occurred not in the study but in the outdoor school of the western frontier, where he picked up surveying and soldiering. Yet, what Washington lacked in schooling he made up in education. Through observation and self-discipline, he worked hard to acquire prudence—considered by Aristotle the indispensable virtue for the statesman—and was ambitious to enlarge his intellectual muscle. While still in his teens Washington copied out by hand 110 behavioral maxims and called them Rules of Civility, and at the age of twenty-two he wrote something of a bestseller about his diplomatic mission into the wilds of northwestern Pennsylvania.
The truly great book of Washington’s life was one he did not write. It was the play he read again and again, as though it were a love letter: Joseph Addison’s Cato (1713). The tragedy, about one of the last martyrs of the Roman Republic, filled Washington’s imagination with the image of the self-sacrificing hero who transcends death by resisting tyranny. The play also anticipated Romanticism, as its most famous line attests: “A day, an hour, of virtuous liberty is worth a whole eternity in bondage.” Washington saw the play performed and, in turn, had it performed for his soldiers on several occasions during the War for Independence, not only to teach his soldiers about civic republicanism but also to buck up their flagging spirits. Many a biographer has asserted that it was Cato that kept Washington’s own spirit buoyed during the winter at Valley Forge and other low points in the quest for independence.
As if to make up for his own lack of schooling, the Father of Our Nation championed the schooling of others. Especially during his second term as president he wrote letters and delivered an annual report to Congress to encourage the founding of a great national university. Read today, his proposal sounds like the description of a first-rate land-grant school such as the University of Wisconsin or University of Minnesota. Washington stressed the teaching of sound agricultural techniques and innovation not unlike his ongoing experiments at Mount Vernon, but he also encouraged in-depth instruction in history, philosophy, and belles lettres, disciplines at the core of the liberal arts. The new republic would need to prepare citizens for public service, and such instruction would provide powerful models and antimodels of leadership. The national university would fulfill America’s promise to seed future generations with leading thinkers and thinking leaders.
The Unschooled Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln is another president who captures the irony that we are highlighting, as he was one of the eleven presidents who never attended or graduated from college. Our prairie statesman observed that his formal schooling amounted to about one year, if that. Yet he was among the most educated presidents in U.S. history.
To the chagrin of his father, Abraham discovered reading at an early age, often to the neglect of his farming chores. On the Indiana and Illinois frontier, he closely read anything he could get his hands on, especially Aesop, Euclid, the Bible, Shakespeare, Burns, Franklin, and America’s early state papers. Books such as these he read over and over, internalizing their rich diction and strong cadences. As scholars Ronald White, Garry Wills, and others have shown, it was Lincoln’s perceptive reading of good books that equipped him to write prose that “belongs to the ages.”
Think of the most beautiful phrase from his first inaugural address: “the mystic chords of memory.” Shakespearean in power, the phrase captures the sentiment that held Americans together even as they were divided by quarreling sections and generations. Likewise, consider the most arresting thought from his second inaugural address, that forgiveness and mercy are more important than judgment in a nation desperate to heal from civil war. No wonder Lincoln is our only president whose speeches have been consistently anthologized for students in English, composition, and history classes. It is no exaggeration to say that his Gettysburg Address and second inaugural address are classics of American statecraft and literature.
Harry Truman: Learning from Thucydides
Harry Truman was the last chief executive without a college degree to reach the White House. “Give ’em Hell Harry” was a plainspoken midwesterner who grew up on a farm near Independence, Missouri. All his life he felt the inadequacy of his formal schooling, and all his life he strained against bad eyesight to read the best books he could find.
This autodidact would find his books to be indispensable companions in the White House. That is because Truman was not well prepared to assume the presidency when his predecessor, Franklin Roosevelt, died suddenly. The authors he read filled some of the gaps in his understanding of statecraft. Truman hoped that by reading of the mistakes of leaders past, he could avoid making those same mistakes himself.
After Truman became president in April 1945, my grandfather, J.B. Whitney Jr., had the opportunity to meet with him in the White House. Whitney had also grown up on a farm near Independence, and the two friends shared much in common. He asked the president how he would deal with all the pressures of the office, especially the escalating conflict with the Soviet Union. The gathering storm would test any leader in the new atomic age. Truman thought about Whitney’s question a moment and answered, “I am going to keep my Thucydides close at hand.” By studying the thinking and actions of men during the Peloponnesian War, Truman hoped to understand better how leaders on both sides of the Iron Curtain might behave.
Drawing Wisdom from the Liberal Arts
Despite their lack of formal schooling, these three American presidents were driven to become well educated. This paradox confirms Aristotle’s observation that one of our first needs as human beings is to know. Some of the best teachers of our unschooled presidents were dead men who lived on as the authors of great books. With such a first-rate faculty as their tutors and companions, Washington, Lincoln, and Truman found a measure of wisdom to deal with the existential crises the United States faced—from the tumult of our nation’s birth in the eighteenth century, to its internal trial by fire in the nineteenth, to the mortal threat of nuclear war in the twentieth.
So the lives of these three presidents nudge us toward a tentative “yes” to the question posed at the start of this essay, whether the liberal arts can prepare citizens for leadership. Tentative, because the danger of seeing the liberal arts merely as a cultural affectation—as der gebildete Nazi did—remains always a possibility.