Q: Why is Thomas Jefferson an icon for Leadership Education?

TJEd BookThe very easiest answer to this question is that TJEd is not a technical description of the process of one man’s education, but a prescription for how parents, students and teachers in this generation can aspire to the level of education of  truly great leaders, artists, innovators, and world-changers throughout history –  through the application of timeless principles.

Jefferson is widely acknowledged as an icon of excellence in education, preparation and application.  President John Kennedy said, on the occasion of a dinner held to honor recipients of the Nobel Prize:

“I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

Back to the Beginning

When, as a young man, my husband Oliver sought to find a more excellent education for himself, the icon of Jefferson was very present in his mind. He became acquainted with the rigor with which Jefferson approached his studies as young man, and grew convinced that not only did our generation lack such a study ethic, but we did not even conceive of it as an ideal to aspire to. How many fifteen-year-olds do you know who voluntarily, passionately and purposefully study 8-12 hours days – day after day, week after week, year after year? Yet in the case of Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton and their peers, this was the norm.

Leadership Education actually came into existence for one basic reason: Oliver wanted to know how to perpetuate freedom in our day with the same level of effectiveness that the Founders did in their day. So, he started with the questions: “How did James Madison, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson achieve their potency? And, at such an early age? Indeed – how did the founding generation have such a large contingent of luminaries prepared to fulfill such a unique, pivotal and critical mission?”

Jefferson was in his early thirties when they declared independence. Madison was in his twenties! And there were literally hundreds of such men and women of character and wisdom in that relatively small population. HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?

This question was the genesis of TJEd.

Working Backward

As Oliver deconstructed how to get to 24-year-old Madison, he had to ask: What was Madison doing at 15 that made 24 possible? What was Jefferson doing at 20 that made 30 possible? This is where we came to identify the critical elements of classics, mentors, and the aptitude and desire for rigorous study between teens and early young adult years.

So, to deconstruct further: How do you get a youth who WANTS to study like that?

Obviously, he had to have:

1) a sense of purpose to do so,
2) a passion for learning, and
3) an identity and core that animate him to altruism and excellence.

So we walked it back to Love of Learning Phase, and Core Phase. All nature was bearing witness of how these phases should unfold. To finally articulate it and discover how it can and should apply to our own children – and ourselves!! – was liberating, and convicting. We had to try to make others know how their own children, how THEY, could have an education to match their mission – just as the Founders did.

Oliver’s interest was in learning what Jefferson had studied with his mentors, the hours that were expected of him, the methods employed by his mentors, the relevance of the interplay with other students, etc.  Oliver wrote the original articles and manuscript of TJEd and developed his seminar and convention speeches with the hope of exciting the readers’ and listeners’ interest in seeking not only to revere the American Founding Fathers, but to emulate them – and not just as adults, but as youth.

Oliver’s first effort was to help college-aged students to engage their studies with the passion and vision of a Jefferson or Madison. But how? Tom and James did not have cell phones and email accounts; they did not have the mountains of information and distraction at their ready disposal on the internet. Original sources were not just an obscure option for them–they were the obvious choice.

The Phases of Learning

Phases of LearningIn the course of teaching these things, questions from the audience naturally arose: how do we get our youth to WANT to study such hours? What precedes that magical development? The answers to such questions are the key to Leadership Education.

Further research of educational models, developmental science and leaders throughout history helped us define and articulate the principles of “TJEd”.

To summarize:

  • How do you get life-long learners, who voluntarily and passionately make learning a major priority every day? Who will tell you, like Jefferson, “I cannot live without books”? Who apply reading and learning to their career, family life, and every-day life in the way Jefferson did – making them increasingly better in everything they undertake; not just educationally, but in all facets of their daily experience?
  • They need two fundamental and highly developed skills: A love of study, and the ability to apply what they study in extremely effective ways in real life.
  • How do you get someone to love studying this way? Answer: They have to LOVE learning. To become a Jefferson or a Madison or a da Vinci, Abigail Adams, etc., one must absolutely love to study. To become one who loves to study, one must absolutely love to learn. Just loving the grades or perks that come with studying isn’t enough – because this more shallow love of study doesn’t last when there are no report cards left and the perks are gone.
  • For almost everyone, such a love of learning and study is greatly amplified when the learner feels a deep sense of personal mission and life purpose. This connects Love of Learning with Love of… Service, Success, Achievement, Sacrifice, etc.

Show us such a fifteen-year-old, and we’ll almost always show you a twenty-three year old with a superb, world-class, Thomas Jefferson-level education, and a fifty-year-old who has serves greatly and spread greatness.

An Education to Match Your Mission

product hero educationThe whole premise of TJEd was to detect and codify the principles and methods that would lead to an excellent, life-long self-educator. This is hard to pull off in one generation, because the facilitators (parents and teachers) of the first generation (and in some cases, the second) are playing catch-up on family culture and struggle to actually apply the excellence in education elements – because, after all, they are secondary to the family culture, and should be.

This cannot be overstated. If we’re trying to raise whole families, and save a nation from decline (or cure cancer, drastically raise the level of art, produce the kinds of movies that will prepare this earth for what it should become someday, heal families, etc.), we have to have a sense of the hierarchy of goods, and not allow convention or public opinion to shake our resolve.

Even John Adams understood this, as represented by this statement:

“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.”

It would appear that he felt the family and community culture were well established, or, I am confident, they would have been listed before the study of government. Or, you could argue, they are the same thing. Perhaps. I guess in the case of Oliver’s and my dovetailing missions (his: “liberate the captive”; mine: “heal families”), it may seem to be the case.

If any of us find ourselves regretting what might be missed in our own personal education, and in the choices we must make for our families, let us be reminded that even Adams suggested in no uncertain terms that his study would, of necessity, exclude many worthy pursuits. No doubt there are professional educators today who would argue that he had his priorities out of whack. I don’t think he would have listened, and I’m glad he knew what he knew, and stayed the course.

Two Systems at Odds

The public school model tends to seek empirical validation all along the way through childhood and youth, while the liberal education model places much higher emphasis on the emotional and mental postures that are cultivated during childhood and youth – to the point of even being dismissive of what may or may not have been learned–as long as the emotional and mental postures are rightly cultivated.

See this quote by Mortimer Adler:

“I must reiterate to you that you can set no store by your education in childhood and youth, no matter how good it was. Childhood and youth are no time to get an education. They are time to get ready to get an education.” (see Great Books of the Western World, Vol 1, p 76)

Note: Adler was a professional educator. He was, in fact, the founder of the great books movement and the editor and compiler of the Great Books of the Western World set. Another Jefferson, in fact.

This is the same Great Books set that sits dusty and unread on library shelves in almost every city and town in America. Indeed, they are now being culled because they remain unread. Yet it was many of these same books that the Founders knew by heart and quoted off the top of their heads. It was precisely this shift away from these specific books that Allan Bloom called “The Closing of the American Mind.”

Groupies? Or Acolytes?

Do we revere the Founders? How do we show it? Do we care about freedom? How important is art? Does beauty still matter in the modern world? What about music? The great Shakespearean themes on stage? Science taught the way the Founders learned it, where the question of what to do with scientific and technological discoveries was the first great lesson every youth learned….

In short, the education of the American Founding, and the ten generations that came before and after it, saw education as coming face-to-face with greatness. In our times, spending one’s youthful days face-to-face with greatness has been replaced with passing nationalized exams and job training. Is it any wonder that young people raised face-to-face with greatness had a different study ethic? Or that mere job training for what too often turns out to be what The Atlantic called “well-paid drone work” is pursued not by fifteen-year-olds passionately studying twelve hours per day, but by fifteen-year-olds who do the bare minimum to get the grade and cram for two hours before the exam?

The “end” influences the beginning, and the middle. If we are aiming for true greatness, we’ll approach a love of learning and a love of study differently than if our aim is more “middling.”

As Covey urged: “Begin with the end in mind.”

If the education of our youth is going to match their potential, it must be truly great, indeed.

One of the most devastating lessons we teach is, “I can’t learn unless someone else makes me.” That’s crippling. When a child learns through experimentation, innovation, curiosity, and creativity, their whole mind – their whole soul! – is engaged in the process.

For me, in every age, every subject, every day, the value that informs my choices as a mentor is:

Will this empower my child to be a life-long learner with a passion and a purpose for her education?

It can’t be a three-part answer. It has to be a simple yes or no. If my methods or goals in any way disempower the goal of self-education, I step back and look for another way to achieve my ideal. The 7 Keys of Great Teaching and the Phases of Learning are great resources to help know how, when, and why to introduce new concepts, skills and subjects.


What do we offer?

I. Want help in implementing TJEd? Check out Mentoring in the Classics!

II. Would your youth benefit from inspiring mentors and peers?
Check out TJEd High!

[here’s what parents and students are saying about their experience with TJH >>]

III. Want help for daily content in the home or classroom? We’ve got you covered with our award-winning This Week in History subscription!

IV. Want to connect with others doing TJEd? Join thousands of other parents, mentors and teachers in our fabulous, inspiring and supportive Facebook Group!

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