In 1755, a twenty-year-old John Adams had recently decided to become an attorney. In order to do so, he needed to study under a practicing attorney first. For that privilege, he would need to pay said attorney for the apprenticeship. How did he earn money to pay his mentor? He did what any of us would have done: he rode 60 miles on horseback from Braintree to Worcester, Massachusetts to be a teacher. HA! (My career took the opposite direction. I worked in a law firm before I became a teacher — as a secretary, but still — and upon my departure to pursue teaching, I told the office manager, “If I’m going to work around people who behave like they’re in 8th grade, they may as well be actual 8th Graders.” But I digress…)
Until I began reading David McCullough’s John Adams, I had no idea Adams had a brief career as an educator. By the several accounts I’ve read, it was a job he considered boring and frustrating. He’d have rather been writing sermons (which he may actually have done during class time) or debating the politics of the day with people for whom potty training was a more distant memory than it was for his young charges. Yet, teach he did, and a passage Adams wrote about his experience stopped me dead in my tracks.
“I sometimes, in my sprightly moments, consider myself, in my great chair at school, as some dictator at the head of a commonwealth. In this little state I can discover all the great geniuses, all the surprising actions and revolutions of the great world in miniature. I have several renowned generals but three feet high, and several deep-projecting politicians in petticoats. I have others catching and dissecting flies, accumulating remarkable pebbles, cockleshells, etc., with as ardent curiosity as any virtuoso in the Royal Society….At one table sits Mr. Insipid foppling and fluttering, spinning his whirligig, or playing with his fingers as gaily and wittily as any Frenchified coxcomb brandishes his cane and rattles his snuff box. At another sits the polemical divine, plodding and wrangling in his mind about Adam’s fall in which we sinned, all as his primer has it.”
I read this over many times, struck by its forward-thinking regarding women, its respect for divergent learning types, and the underlying thread of affection he clearly felt towards his students.
For an adult male in those days to see far-reaching and powerful politicians in the form of the little girls he taught was pretty revolutionary and, 250 years later, still too much of a rarity. It also precedes his meeting his wife Abigail, so it cannot be attributed to their powerful emotional and philosophical bonds. Twenty-one years later, when Abigail Adams wrote in 1776 to her husband, advising him to “remember the ladies” in the new laws the young country will form, those were unusual and bold demands for the time. “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation,” she wrote to him. John expressed surprise and concern, replying:
“We have been told that our struggle has loosened the bonds of government everywhere; … that Indians slighted their guardians, and negroes grew insolent to their masters. But your letter was the first intimation that another tribe, more numerous and powerful than all the rest, were grown discontented.” (bold emphasis mine.)
Though in action, he was fairly dismissive of her claim, his marriage to her and reliance upon her advice harkens back to his observations of the little girls in his classroom in 1755.
That Adams saw the “polemical divine” in another child – a young mind troubled by the book’s teaching that all mankind is born sinful – shows tremendous sympathy for the delicate psyche of a child and the impact such religious teachings may have. In struggling to determine his own life’s path, Adams chose law over the clergy, though his father was a deacon. While later in life, he declared, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other,” he also insisted, “This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it.” I wonder if these seemingly conflicting sentiments were at all informed by his time as a teacher, and the role religion played in his upbringing.
Adams’ writing shows great admiration for the natural curiosity and awe of childhood discovery. Looking at his students collecting and dissecting, and seeing them as future members of the Royal Society shows tremendous respect for their innate learning styles, and the importance of fostering exploration in children. I imagine if he were alive today, that he’d be a fan of Maria Montessori and dismayed by the new Common Core curriculum, with its increased rigidity, uniformity, and tail-wagging-the-dog testing. His attitude towards the slower learners was on the condescending side, but still laced with affection and astute observation. I love how he compared “Mr. Insipid’s” fascination and love of his own fingers to a prideful and prissy Frenchman, obsessed with showing off his jeweled things. I’m not sure who comes out looking better in that comparison, but at least the child’s behavior is more age-appropriate.
I’m left to wonder what John Adams would think of our society today. Women continue to face enormous obstacles gaining a foothold in politics. Educational reforms value conformity over individuality, and an emphasis on Results (with a capital “R”) rips the creativity and respect for individual learning styles right out of a teacher’s toolbox. I have a feeling, were he around today, John Adams would be viewing us with skepticism and a furrowed brow.
Aliza Worthington grew up in Brooklyn, NY, and now lives in Baltimore. She began writing in 2009 at the age of 40. Sometimes her writing follows The Seinfeld Model of “no learning, no hugging.” Other times it involves lots of both. She blogs about Life, Liberty and Happiness at “The Worthington Post.” Her work also appears in Catonsville Patch, Kveller, and has been featured in the Community Spotlight section of Daily Kos under the username “Horque.” Her writing has also landed in the “Winner’s Circle” on Midlife Collage twice. Aliza’s piece, Leaving Gender At The Door, earned her a BlogHer 2013 Voices of the Year award. Follow her on Twitter at @AlizaWrites.