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Tuesday, July 4, 2017

a July 4th message; my favorite President speaks



These days, I find it hard to travel from the U.S. without getting involved in a conversation about Mr. Trump. The world is full of people who find him an odd person and an odd president. I typically ask them to name a U.S. president who they admired. Nixon? Bush? FDR? Lyndon Johnson? Mr Trump hasn’t started any wars has he? The “wonderful" JFK started the Viet Nam War but we seem to give him a pass on that one because he was charming.

So, as my way of celebrating July 4 (which is actually the anniversary of nothing — just a date put on a document that was signed 2 days prior) I thought I would mention my favourite U.S. President: John Adams.

As I am pretty much a one issue guy when it comes to Presidents, I like John Adams because of his attitude on education. Here is my favourite quote by him:


“There are two types of education… One should teach us how to make a living, and the other how to live.”


I love this quote because it sums up the obvious about school, and it has been ignored by nearly all educators. 

Why did Adams feel this way? It must be that he got a very pragmatic education, I suppose. Nah. Adams went to Harvard. And, what did he learn at Harvard in 1752? Adams studied mathematics, British and classical history, science, philosophy, and Latin and Greek. He ranked at the top of his class academically.  


In other words more or less the same stuff people study everywhere in every school today (minus the Latin and Greek and with the addition of some science that didn’t then exist.)

So, why the disdain for the impracticality of the education system?

Here is a quote from a letter he wrote to his wife in 1780:

The science of government it is my duty to study, more than all other sciences; the arts of legislation and administration and negotiation ought to take the place of, indeed exclude, in a manner, all other arts. I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.


This is brilliant remark. After he got out into the real world he began to understand that all that Latin and Greek and Mathematics wasn’t turning out to be very valuable to him. He wished that he had studied government. (Of course, they didn't teach that at Harvard. They do today but it isn’t very popular with students.) Also politics and war. Not taught at Harvard then.

He wanted his sons to study commerce and agriculture, which are certainly not taught to Harvard undergraduates. Why did he want that? He says so their sons could study poetry, music, and painting.


This is a brilliant remark and, like his earlier quote above, has been totally ignored by the education establishment.

What he is saying, if I interpret him correctly, is that it is all very well to study things you will never use but will expand your mind, if and only if you are living in well functioning country where the pragmatic things have worked very well and where we all have time on our hands to spend in pleasant pursuits.

Of course, we have not achieved that since 1776. Our country does not run perfectly and we need people who can run businesses, invent new ideas, and grow as the world changes. We don’t have that, in part because school hasn’t changed at all. We don't teach how to make a living nor do we teach how to live. We pretend that we teach that by requiring STEM and arguing about how important the humanities are. Instead of blindly believing that mathematics teaches reasoning we might actually try to teach practical things and help people learn to live and work. Instead we teach the quadratic formula, which we never use. 

Adams got a Harvard education and it did nothing for him directly. Indirectly, it helped him become a thinking person with original ideas. It didn't help him do that by making him study Greek. Going to Harvard today teaches students what it taught then, how to interact with other intelligent people and learn from that interaction.

To put this another away, the Harvard curriculum is as irrelevant today to the average person as it was to Adams. But it is nice to be around smart people.

And, as much as we like to vilify Mr Trump, he did just decide to support apprenticeship programs, and idea that Adams would have surely endorsed, but this news might have gotten lost in the barrel of news about his tweeting:

On Thursday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to substantially increase the number of U.S. apprenticeships from the current 500,000 (minuscule for the size of the economy) by doubling the amount the government spends on apprenticeship programs. (Fortune Magazine, June 18, 2017.)


I will end with two more Adams’ quotes: 


Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially of the lower class of people, are so extremely wise and useful, that, to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant.



“You will ever remember that all the end of study is to make you a good man and a useful citizen.”

– John Adams

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