"Find a great leader in history, and you will nearly always find two central elements of their education – classics and mentors. From Lincoln, Jefferson and Washington to Ghandi, Newton and John Locke, to Abigail Adams, Mother Theresa and Joan of Arc – great men and women of history studied other great men and women.” A Thomas Jefferson Education, p. 37DeMille is claiming that virtually all great leaders in history had classics and mentors that were central to their development. This is an important claim, because he uses this claim as evidence that TJEd works to foster leaders. We ought to find out if this is true.
I wanted to make a chart of leaders and see whether there is evidence that study of classics and mentoring were instrumental in helping them become great. But first, I had to decide: what is a classic, and what is a mentor?
What is a classic?
Here's the definition of "classic" from Merriam-Webster
1: a literary work of ancient Greece or Rome
a: a work of enduring excellence; also : its author
b: an authoritative source
3: a typical or perfect example
4: a traditional event "a football classic"
A "classic" is more than a good book. It is a book whose value has been proven over time. Definition 1a says that is a work of "enduring excellence." Time really is necessary for something to be declared a classic. If one of the greatest works ever created by man was published this year, it cannot be a classic, not yet at least. It may become a classic, but it is not a classic until it has endured, and that takes time. This is the difference between a great book and a classic: time. Great works that remain great works over time are classics. Classics are the works that people have declared to be a special category of recognition, a category that indicates that several generations have considered it to be of the highest value. Several generations. That may be a high standard, and it is. That's the point. And when people say that they love the "classics" and that so-and-so was trained in the classics, they are not talking about New York Times Bestsellers.
DeMille doesn't ever define what a classic is in A Thomas Jefferson Education, although he does include an appendix that contains a list of 100 classics for adults. I'd say about 80 of them match what I think of as a classic (I sure wouldn't have included 7 Habits by Steven Covey, 3 books by Cleon Skousen, Human Action by von Mises, The Chosen by Potok, or Frank's Alas Babylon). I will have more to say on this subject, but for now I just want to be able to have a working definition of a classic so that I can check leaders of the past and see if they really did study classics. I think my definition above is appropriate for this effort.
What is a mentor?
According to Merriam-Webster, a mentor is:
1 capitalized : a friend of Odysseus entrusted with the education of Odysseus' son Telemachus
2 a: a trusted counselor or guide b: tutor, coach
But DeMille makes a distinction between mentors, and teachers or anyone else.
A good mentor is someone of high moral character who is more advanced than the student and can guide his or her learning. A Thomas Jefferson Education, p.39So when DeMille uses the term mentor, he means something other than just someone that influenced the person. A supportive person is not necessarily a mentor unless he is guiding the student. And there is a sense that the mentor is on higher ground or has advanced and gone before the student. This is the working definition I will be using as I look at leaders in history to see if they had mentors.
So, if the individual studied classics (works whose value has endured over time) I put an 'x' in the column for classics, and if the individual had a mentor (a person more advanced that then individual who is guiding the individual) then I put an 'x' in the mentor column. I put a line in between DeMille's list of leaders from the quote at the beginning of this post, and others that I added. I also added links to each person's name which will take you to the Wikipedia entry for that person.
|Studied Classics||Had Mentor|
|Thomas Jefferson||x||x||Read many classics. Was mentored by George Wythe, although this was after Jefferson graduated college and it was part of his training in law, which was the common method of the day for training lawyers|
|Abraham Lincoln||x||Read a lot as a child on the frontier. Also spent much time reading in the Library of Congress|
|George Washington||Was not well read, and was a little self-conscious about it. No indication that there was any significant mentoring for him|
|Ghandi||Studied some at a university, but no indication that he studied the classics to a large degree. Ended up renouncing western ideas anyway.|
|Isaac Newton||x||Bright as child, and well-read. Went to some of the better schools|
|John Locke||x||Read many classics|
|Abigail Adams||x||No indication that she had any specific mentoring worthy of note|
|Mother Theresa||x||No indication she studied classics, other than the lives of missionaries. She did have some nuns that greatly influenced her|
|Joan of Arc||Almost certainly could not read. Was killed at 19. Did not have any mentors (in fact, it's hard to imagine how she could have a mentor)|
|Joseph Smith||Little education. No particular mentor (I did not count his father as a mentor because I think he just supported and encouraged him but not necessarily was more advanced than him or guided him in his religious duties).|
|Cincinnatus||Most likely had no access to classics, because there weren't many at the time (500 B.C.), and they would have been scarce, and he may not have even been literate since he was a small farmer. No indication that he had any mentoring.|
|Michelangelo||x||He had been an apprentice to several artists that affected him|
|Dwight D. Eisenhower||x||No indication of studying classics|
|Galileo Galilei||x||Most likely was familiar with classics, especially the Greek writers on science|
|Dante||x||Was well versed in Roman classics|
|Socrates||No indication of studying classics. He most likely was familiar with Greek epics at the time, as was everyone else. No indication of any mentor.|
|(Saint) Peter||x||Was a fisherman so it's unlikely he knew any classics. Jesus was definitely his mentor that influenced him|
|William Bradford||No indications of studying the classics or having a mentor|
|Martin Luther||x||x||Devoted much time to the classics and had influential mentors|
I don't think I've been unfair determining whether there is evidence for these leaders studying classics or having mentors. Obviously people could argue changing a few here or there, but the overall pattern would not change. There really is no indication that studying classics or having mentors are the key to fostering leaders, or even necessary. For those leaders that lived long ago, we don't know exactly what their education was. But that just further makes my point, that there is no evidence to support DeMille's claims that "nearly always" great leaders throughout history studied classics and had mentors. There is no evidence to back that up. But it's not just a lack of evidence. We have several examples of leaders whose education we do know that didn't study the classics or have mentors or both.
This is not nit-picking. DeMille's whole argument for "leadership education" as he describes it is built on his assertion that this is the predominant educational approach that nearly all leaders have had throughout history. If that's not correct, then he would only being assert his own ideas about what kind of education leaders should have, with little or no evidence that this actually would result in developing leaders at all.
DeMille is very clear that he has discovered the principles of what makes great leaders and what was common in their education.
"We did not invent Leadership Education; we codified it." Leadership Education, p.224 (emphasis original)
"These Phases [of Learning] were first noted and identified in our research of the education of Thomas Jefferson, and were later seen to be a pattern of many luminaries in history who lived exemplary lives and changed the world for good.” A Thomas Jefferson Education, p. 31
"Find a great leader in history, and you will nearly always find two central elements of their education – classics and mentors. From Lincoln, Jefferson and Washington to Ghandi, Newton and John Locke, to Abigail Adams, Mother Theresa and Joan of Arc – great men and women of history studied other great men and women. ” A Thomas Jefferson Education, p. 37
"This is how the great leaders of history learned. They read classics and had these sorts of discussions and were really pushed (by inspiration and internal drive, not forced requirements) by mentors.” A Thomas Jefferson Education, p. 47
"The greatest leaders in history used a very simple curriculum. They read the classics, they discussed them with a mentor who accepted only quality work, and they applied what they learned to real life.” A Thomas Jefferson Education, p.55
"Leadership Education is more than just a collection of ideas. It is a recounting of a process by which scholars such as Thomas Jefferson, Isaac Newton, Marie Curie and Winston Churchill achieved excellence in scholarship and personal development. And we do not consider ourselves the authors of this process as much as its biographers." Leadership Education, p.59
"We cannot expect to enter this new country and suppose that it will be tamed for us, or that we will master it upon our first arrival. However, the path we walk through this country is tried and true. Great leaders and countless great citizens have been invited by trusted mentors to walk this way." Leadership Education, Appendix
However, looking at the backgrounds of many leaders throughout history, few of them had studied the classics and had mentors which DeMille claims to be the two key ingredients of virtually all great leaders through history. So all the claims that classics and mentors are necessary for developing great leaders is false. This does not mean that studying the classics or using mentors is bad. Quite the contrary. But it does mean that there are other reasons why men and women become great and it does mean that studying the classics and having mentors are not necessary to for great leaders to arise. There is tremendous value in studying the classics. It's what I do and what I try to help my kids do. But not to create leaders, especially since there is no historical indication that it would.
If great men and women become leaders for some other reasons besides studying the classics and having mentors, then that means that DeMille cannot claim that a "Thomas Jefferson Education" will have any bearing on developing future leaders, and conversely that those not having a "Thomas Jefferson Education" will not become leaders. If there is no pattern of classics and mentors and if most leaders throughout history did not receive the type of education that DeMille claims they did, then the "leadership education" is not a leadership education at all, but merely one educational approach that DeMille favors.
Perhaps someone (like Thomas Jefferson) did have the education that DeMille argues for but no one else did, or maybe no one had the type of education DeMille argues for. Either way, the assertion that this education is what most likely will foster leaders is false. If we accept DeMille's arguments that his educational approach is the best way to foster leaders, we can only do so on faith because there is no support in history for what he claims.
Thomas Jefferson's education
I think it would be worthwhile to point out some things about Thomas Jefferson's education, since DeMille uses his education as the model. Thomas Jefferson was taught in a local school. At age 9 he started learning Latin, Greek, and French. When he was 14 he boarded with a minister would was also his teacher that taught him some of the classics. At age 16 he went to college and graduated two years later. After graduating college he worked under George Wythe
as a law clerk. This was the common approach for young men to learn law and eventually be able practice law themselves. Jefferson and Wythe became very close and Jefferson referred to Wythe as "his second father."
What aspects of Thomas Jefferson's education should we model? Learning Latin at age 9? Living away from home? Going to college at age 16? Clerking in a law office? How much of Jefferson's success can be attributed to his education, and how much to his natural intellect and abilities? Probably a little of each, but how much? It's important to understand this to make a wise decision about how to try to emulate him. Wouldn't it be absurd to claim that boarding with a minister for two years is the key to fostering great leaders and that this would be a "Thomas Jefferson Education?" What if learning Latin at age 9 is the key? What if it trains the mind like nothing else can? How many great Roman leaders knew Latin at age 9? (Probably all of them). Maybe that's the key to leadership: learning Latin at a young age. The point is that we need to make sure we don't get carried away in determining not only what made Thomas Jefferson great, but also extrapolating that and determining what made almost all other men great.
DeMille has taken some aspects of Jefferson's life and declared that those were the necessary elements of fostering Jefferson's leadership, but ignored so many other factors. But not only that, DeMille then claims that almost all leaders in history had these same necessary elements, but history says that hardly any leaders in history had those so-called necessary elements.
Why is Thomas Jefferson the model?
What about the education of George Washington? He felt that dancing and horseback riding were very important in the development of a man. He felt they helped foster strength and grace. Washington was known for his physical presence and the dignity for which he carried himself. It contributed greatly to the amount of respect and loyalty he received from those he led. He didn't know the classics and didn't know Latin or Greek, yet he is the "Father of Our Country" and perhaps one of the greatest men that lived, maybe even greater than Jefferson. Why should we favor Jefferson's education over Washington's? What about Joseph Smith? Why isn't his education the model? For some reason, DeMille picks Jefferson to be the model of how we should educate children for greatness, but there are plenty of other great men, maybe even greater, who could be the model.
Summary of Reason #1
DeMille for some reason picks Jefferson to be the model, picks certain aspects of his life to be the key elements that led to his greatness while discounting other aspects, and discounting the aspects of the lives of other great leaders. Then he extrapolates these selective aspects to apply to all leaders in history, even though history does not support these claims.