Next week is National School Choice Week, and in celebration CRI invites you to read the first of a new series of articles from Larry Koch on the relationship between Abraham Lincolns education approach and Delawares current education system.
The Dysmorphic Man
"In the life of man and in society: the one is utility and the other is culture. Education must enable a man to become more efficient, to achieve with increasing facility the legitimate goals of his life.” Martin Luther King Jr.
It was election time, and a crowd had gathered in a frontier community to meet the candidates. The candidates were running for the Illinois General Assembly. One of these aspiring politicians walked up to the lectern. He was tall, young and inexperienced, but these were hardly the most unique characteristics that the citizens of New Salem observed on that historic day of March 9, 1832.
He was an unusual American going by the name of Abraham Lincoln. His ears and feet were unusually large, his body gaunt and angular, and his hair was askew. Lincoln has been described as “dysmorphic,” meaning that that his body shape was not normal. One author noted, “this was the preferred term because it does not carry a value judgment. It is not an insult, whereas ‘ugly’ always is.” His attire made his appearance even more comical; his trousers were too short for his 6’4” frame, and often his long johns were exposed when his pants rode up his leg. His clothes were often in tatters, and even as a late adolescent and young adult he sometimes worked the fields in his bare feet. It is reliably noted that he at least once gave a speech barefooted!
His background matched his appearance, and it would not have been unusual in a small rural town if some in the audience knew this from both testimony and rumor. His father was an almost illiterate subsistence farmer, constantly on the move in search of clear titles and better land. There were reliable stories that he occasionally beat young Abe, and the two were somewhat estranged. His closest relatives, the Hanks family, who lived off and on in a crowded shack with the Lincolns, would have been called "rednecks" in todays world. In a book entitled Lincoln, A Foreigner’s Quest, Jan Morris finds the areas he came from in rural Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois, were cultural wastelands. She concludes the log cabin he was born in was the equivalent of its modern day descendant-a mobile home in a trailer park.
Lincoln’s appearance, background, clothing, and high pitched voice might have been distracting to his listeners, but his sincerity and the logic of his arguments focused the audience’s attention on his message, then as it would in the future. While young Lincoln failed in this election to win a seat in the Illinois General Assembly, he did received a plurality of the votes in his home community of New Salem, a memory he would always treasure. Lincoln would try to appear stoic in defeat, but he very much desired public approval, and those who knew him were aware of the effect of his losses.
Thanks to the Sangamon Journal, a newspaper of Sangamon County, Illinois, we havea record of Lincoln’s speech that has been preserved. After going over the basic Whig party talking points about public improvements, Lincoln devoted a large part of his speech not to the topics of “slavery,” or “marauding Indians” or other topics of the day, but to the issue of public education.
Why did Lincoln choose to talk about this particular topic in his first recorded speech? What did he say about education, then and in the future? Why was this topic important to this aspiring politician? This is the first of a series of articles that will focus on Lincoln and education. While historians routinely accept any information on our 16th President as worthy of study, this topic is particularly important for a life-long educator (and Lincoln buff) like myself and the general public-especially in light of the biography and characteristics of “the log-cabin –rail-splitter” background.
American schooling today has many issues, but none is greater than its inability to successfully educate our society’s outliers; the children of dysfunctional homes, uneducated parents, and physically different students, and Lincoln was all of that in one over-sized 6’4” package. By any measure his wisdom, eloquence, skills, successes and insights place him as one of our greatest, if not the greatest, presidents.
What were the skills that Lincoln had that helped him succeed, and which of them are “teachable?” What insights did he have about education and about himself as a learner? Lincoln had limited time in school, and was not very complimentary of that experience- but he still devoted his first recorded speech to this topic, and addressed issues in education and learning at other times in his life.
As an educator and life-long student of our 16th president, I am perplexed by a number of questions. How would such an odd pupil have fared in today’s educational system? Lincoln said that he found his grand total of one year of school experience “unmotivating.” What might have been the effect of twelve years? Many students with similar backgrounds today have become disenchanted to learning.
Put it another way- Would an Abraham Lincoln who attended 12 years of today’s public education have seen his natural gifts enhanced or not, would he have achieved so much, and would he have even survived the experience? This is a real concern, as Lincoln sadly was always one who suffered severe depression and, especially as a young man, was considered a suicide risk to those who knew him.
In the next edition in this series, we will introduce you to Lincolns philosophy on public education, and how his own experiences might shape his view on the way Delaware conducts its own education system, were he alive today.
Larry Koch, EdD.
Contributor, Caesar Rodney Institute