Once again, from The Underground History of American Education:
A good yardstick to measure how far modern schooling has migrated from the education of the past is George Washington’s upbringing in the middle eighteenth century. Although Washington descended from important families, his situation wasn’t quite the easeful life that suggests. The death of his father left him, at eleven, without Ben Franklin’s best rudder, and the practice of primogeniture, which vested virtually the entire inheritance in the first son (in order to stabilize social class) compelled Washington to either face the future as a ward of his brother, an unthinkable alternative for George, or take destiny into his own hands as a boy. You probably already know how that story turned out, but since the course he pursued was nearly schoolless, its curriculum is worth a closer look. For the next few minutes imagine yourself at “school” with Washington.
George Washington was no genius; we know that from too many of his contemporaries to quibble. John Adams called him “too illiterate, too unlearned, too unread for his station and reputation.” Jefferson, his fellow Virginian, declared he liked to spend time “chiefly in action, reading little.” It was an age when everyone in Boston, even shoeblacks, knew how to read and count; it was a time when a working-class boy in a family of thirteen like Franklin couldn’t remember when he didn’t know how to read.
(George) Washington had no schooling until he was eleven, no classroom confinement, no blackboards. He arrived at school already knowing how to read, write, and calculate about as well as the average college student today. If that sounds outlandish, turn back to Franklin’s curriculum and compare it with the intellectual diet of a modern gifted and talented class. Full literacy wasn’t unusual in the colonies or early republic; many schools wouldn’t admit students who didn’t know reading and counting because few schoolmasters were willing to waste time teaching what was so easy to learn. It was deemed a mark of depraved character if literacy hadn’t been attained by the matriculating student. Even the many charity schools operated by churches, towns, and philanthropic associations for the poor would have been flabbergasted at the great hue and cry raised today about difficulties teaching literacy. American experience proved the contrary.
Following George to school at eleven to see what the schoolmaster had in store would reveal a skimpy menu of studies, yet one with a curious gravity: geometry, trigonometry, and surveying. You might regard that as impossible or consider it was only a dumbed-down version of those things, some kid’s game akin to the many simulations one finds today in schools for prosperous children—simulated city-building, simulated court trials, simulated businesses—virtual realities to bridge the gap between adult society and the immaturity of the young. But if George didn’t get the real thing, how do you account for his first job as official surveyor for Culpepper County, Virginia, only 2,000 days after he first hefted a surveyor’s transit in school?
For the next three years, Washington earned the equivalent of about $100,000 a year in today’s purchasing power. It’s probable his social connections helped this fatherless boy get the position, but in frontier society anyone would be crazy to give a boy serious work unless he actually could do it. Almost at once he began speculating in land; he didn’t need a futurist to tell him which way the historical wind was blowing. By the age of twenty-one, he had leveraged his knowledge and income into 2,500 acres of prime land in Frederick County, Virginia.
Washington had no father as a teenager, and we know he was no genius, yet he learned geometry, trigonometry, and surveying when he would have been a fifth or sixth grader in our era. Ten years later he had prospered directly by his knowledge. His entire life was a work of art in the sense it was an artifice under his control. He even eventually freed his slaves without being coerced to do so. Washington could easily have been the first king in America but he discouraged any thinking on that score, and despite many critics, he was so universally admired the seat of government was named after him while he was still alive.
Washington attended school for exactly two years. Besides the subjects mentioned, at twelve and thirteen (and later) he studied frequently used legal forms like bills of exchange, tobacco receipts, leases, and patents. From these forms, he was asked to deduce the theory, philosophy, and custom which produced them. By all accounts, this steeping in grown-up reality didn’t bore him at all. I had the same experience with Harlem kids 250 years later, following a similar procedure in teaching them how to struggle with complex income tax forms. Young people yearn for this kind of guided introduction to serious things, I think. When that yearning is denied, schooling destroys their belief that justice governs human affairs.
Washington also studied geography and astronomy on his own, gaining a knowledge of regions, continents, oceans, and heavens. In light of the casual judgment of his contemporaries that his intellect was of normal proportions, you might be surprised to hear that by eighteen he had devoured all the writings of Henry Fielding, Tobias Smollett, and Daniel Defoe and read regularly the famous and elegant Spectator. He also read Seneca’s Morals, Julius Caesar’s Commentaries, and the major writing of other Roman generals like the historian Tacitus.
No public school in the United States is set up to allow a George Washington to happen. Washingtons in the bud stage are screened, browbeaten, or bribed to conform to a narrow outlook on social truth. Boys like Andrew Carnegie who begged his mother not to send him to school and was well on his way to immortality and fortune at the age of thirteen, would be referred today for psychological counseling; Thomas Edison would find himself in Special Ed until his peculiar genius had been sufficiently tamed.