The Education Of John Adams
David McCullough’s book, John Adams, tells about the education of John Adams.
John Adams graduated from Harvard, received a law degree, acquired academic recognition, read Cicero and the classics, was immersed in life-long learning. What distinguished John Adams most, however, was not his learning accomplishments; what distinguished John Adams was his overall character, his: integrity, commitment to truth and justice, dedication to service, commitment to personal excellence, inner self-reflection, personal courage, etc. The education of John Adams involved the mastery of academics, but, the more important part of his education was the development and strengthening of his character.
The development and strengthening of character is a vital part of what it means to become a fully realized person. Character development is an important part of an effective education. But since character development is not something that evaluators of a school measure, character development is now effectively ignored by schools. Academic growth is what is emphasized. Evaluators periodically want to know: Has there been sufficient growth in the children's reading, writing and math progress? Has there been growth in the children’s test taking skills? The merit of a school is determined according to the findings of such evaluations. The importance of character development may be mentioned in school publications as a vague goal, but, practically, because character development is not part of school evaluations, schools ignore character development.
If a real goal of schools was to promote character growth in children, then schools would be evaluated not just on academic growth, but on character growth as well. Evaluators periodically would want to know the answers to such questions as: Has there been any positive growth in the children's integrity, commitment to truth? Any growth in the children's inclination to question authority, to think independently? Any growth in the children's commitment to personal excellence or inner self-reflection? And schools would be evaluated and ranked according to the evaluators’ findings of such questions.
The purpose for public schools has become lost.
The purpose for public schools that makes most sense to me is that public schools should provide an education to its citizens that will empower and encourage them to participate effectively in their democracy. The public good in public education of most importance, it seems to me, is the development of a citizenry with the personal qualities, with the character, needed to assure the preservation and growth of our democracy, the preservation of a government, "for the people, by the people."
Schools, generally, do not model for students what democracy should be, but, rather, immerse students into a benign or petty dictatorship -- an overall organizational structure that is the hallmark of most schools. Schools convince students, by much reinforcement over the years, that when one obeys and fawns over authority, one receives rewards and when one defies authority, one receives punishment. Structures of control that may seem appropriate to guide the behavior of 6 or 7 year olds, continue to be used by schools to control 16 or 17 year olds. Schools, through their practices, engage in enforcing immaturity within their students. Students are not encouraged to develop the character of John Adams, but, in fact, are often punished for displaying independent thinking that challenges authority or for showing a commitment to personal integrity. The idea that schools should prepare students for effective citizenry has become a forgotten idea.
Most of John Adams' early character development occurred outside of his formal schooling. McCullough shows that Adams’ parents played a big role in his development. One central quality that Adams continually credited to his father was his high standard for honesty, and, it is apparent that his parents' character proved to be an inspiration and model for Adams throughout his entire life.
The other huge early educational influence on John Adams, that impacted his character development, was simply his overall environment. By his report, he lived a wonderful childhood, surrounded by a supportive, vital community. Not only his immediate family, but, his whole community contributed to his happy development. "It takes a village," is a powerful concept, the application of which can positively be seen in Adams' early life.
If a childhood such as Adams enjoyed, with the influence of such positive parents and community, could be every child's birthright, then the matter of schools providing the education needed for effective citizenry would not be a concern. Students would acquire the tools for effective citizenry, like Adams, outside of their formal schooling. But, few children are so privileged as Adams was privileged. And the issue is not only money. Regardless that their personal comfort/affluence is probably much higher than what Adams experienced in his childhood, by the standard of Adams' childhood, most children today are deprived. Children today often lack the attention and care of wise, grounded parents; they lack the interactions of a vital community. Rather, children are immersed in a media culture and in media values; the TV often serves both as parents and community.
The deprivation of children that schools most note is the deprivation that will get the schools in most trouble in state evaluations. But, the most important deprivation of students is not their lack of a foundation in math or writing skills. The deprivation of children that is most important is their lack of good role models, their lack of the support of a vital community, their lack of practical and real experiences. It is these deprivations that most hinder the development of character in children. How schools can effectively compensate for these more important deprivations of children is a key question.
Schools make a mistake by not recognizing the importance of the developing and strengthening character within students. Character development is actually the cornerstone of education. Character development goes hand in hand with academic development. We cannot, try as we may, divide humans into distinct compartments. The early education of John Adams resulted in his becoming a man of great learning, and a man of great character. Learning helped improve and strengthen John Adams’ character, and a strengthened character helped Adams to be a better learner. This relation between learning and character seems a great principle that could be applied to much advantage in schools.
And so, how can character be developed in schools? Certainly not through dictatorial efforts nor through workbooks or classes. It seems to me that the question of how student character can be developed and strengthened in schools requires an answer, in fact, that goes beyond what is imaginable for schools as they are currently structured. But whatever the answer is, the first step is to acknowlege the importance of character development and to make a commitment to finding ways to make character development a central concern of schools. John Adams' biography reveals principles of character development. Principles endure. The challenge is to use principles to guide the design of new educational structures, new schools -- but that is a challenge for another day.
It is an interesting question: what would educational structures/schools look like that would implement and use the principles that were the basis for the education of John Adams?