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Sunday, May 14, 2017

26.George Washington: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org

George Washington 

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. 

As a teenager, Washington loved two things: dancing and horseback riding. He pursued 
both with a passion that paid off handsomely when he became president. Large in 
physical stature, his appearance might have stigmatized him as awkward. Instead, he 
developed the agile strength of a dancer and an equestrian, he was able to communicate 
grace through his commanding presence, elan that counterpoised his large build at any 
gathering. Thanks to his twin obsessions he met his responsibilities with the bearing of a 
champion athlete, which saved his life during the Revolution. In the midst of the fray, a 
British sharpshooter drew a bead on this target, but found himself unable to pull the 
trigger because Washington bore himself so magnificently! George Mercer, a friend, 
described Washington as a young man in the following way: 

He is straight as an Indian, measuring six feet, two inches in his stockings and weighing 
175 pounds.... His frame is padded with well developed muscles, indicating great 

British military superiority, including the best available war-making technology, would 
have made hash of a brainless commander in spite of his admirable carriage, so we need 
to analyze the curriculum which produced "America's Fabius," as he was called. 1 

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. 

In New England and the Middle Atlantic Colonies, where reading was especially valued, 
literacy was universal. The printed word was also valued in the South, where literacy was 
common, if not universal. In fact, it was general literacy among all classes that spurred 

the explosive growth of colleges in nineteenth-century America, where even ordinary 
folks hungered for advanced forms of learning. 

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. 

By his own choice, Washington put time into learning deportment, how to be regarded a 
gentleman by other gentlemen; he copied a book of rules which had been used at Jesuit 
schools for over a century and with that, his observations, and what advice he could 
secure, gathered his own character. Here's rule 56 to let you see the flavor of the thing: 
"Associate yourself with men of good Quality if you Esteem your own reputation." Sharp 
kid. No wonder he became president. 

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. 

At sixteen the future president began writing memos to himself about clothing design, not 
content to allow something so important to be left in the hands of tradesmen. Years later 
he became his own architect for the magnificent estate of Mt. Vernon. While still in his 
twenties, he began to experiment with domestic industry where he might avoid the 
vagaries of international finance in things like cotton or tobacco. First he tried to grow 
hemp "for medicinal purposes," which didn't work out; next he tried flax — that didn't 
work either. At the age of thirty-one, he hit on wheat. In seven years he had a little wheat 
business with his own flour mills and hired agents to market his own brand of flour; a 
little later he built fishing boats: four years before the Declaration was written he was 
pulling in 9 million herring a year. 

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. 

Anyone who reads can compare what the American present does in isolating children 
from their natural sources of education, modeling them on a niggardly last, to what the 
American past proved about human capabilities. The effect of the forced schooling 
institution's strange accomplishment has been monumental. No wonder history has been 

'Washington's critics dubbed him "Fabius" after the Roman general who dogged Hannibal's march but avoided battle with the Carthaginian. 
Washington wore down British resolve by eroding the general belief in their invincibility, something he had learned on the Monongahela when 
Braddock's force was routed. Eventually the French became convinced Washington was on the winning side, and with their support America 
became a nation. But it was the strategy of Washington that made a French-American alliance possible at all. 

Montaigne's Curriculum 

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