By R.L. Stollar, HA Community Coordinator
George Washington is the greatest homeschooler of all time.
Homeschool advocates love that sentence. It’s like the knife driven into the heart of public education, the garlic wielded against the vampiric detractors of homeschooling.
What a solid sentence. The syntax is perfect.
There’s just one problem with it: it simply isn’t true.
I honestly don’t know where the myth of George Washington as homeschooler originated. When Rob Shearer wrote about Washington back in 1998 for Practical Homeschooling, he never mentions Washington was homeschooled. He says that Washington was “one of the most important figures in American History.” So if he was homeschooled, that would seem like a good time to mention that fact. But he doesn’t.
My guess would be the myth originated three years later with alternative education activist John Taylor Gatto, who is widely celebrated in homeschooling circles. In Gatto’s classic critique of American public education, the 2001 book The Underground History of American Education, he states:
“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… Washington also studied geography and astronomy on his own…”
Gatto, however, never says Washington was “homeschooled.” Though he does point out that, “Washington attended school for exactly two years.” Which is not “exactly” true, but we will get to that in a bit. The point is, Gatto says that Washington mainly taught himself but also received formal education to complement that self-teaching.
Yet somehow Washington is today considered a classic example of homeschooling’s power. He is included in those many and sundry lists of “famous homeschoolers.” There’s even a website for “Famous Homeschoolers” (www.famoushomeschoolers.net) that includes him. (Does anyone fact check those lists, by the way? Because I swear 75% of the people listed in most of those do not qualify, just like George Washington.)
Just last week, the Homeschool Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) dedicated the entirety of its Home School Heartbeat radio program to Washington.
The title of their week’s series was — surprise! — “Homeschooled Leader: George Washington.” The series’ description says, “The father of our country was a surveyor, general, president—and homeschooler.”
HSLDA’s Mike Smith gushed throughout the week about Washington and his homeschooling and how wonderfully it shaped him and his legacy for the U.S. (emphasis added):
“Who was America’s greatest homeschooler? Some say it was George Washington… America owes its very existence to one of the greatest homeschoolers of all time… Like most frontier families at this time, homeschooling was the most viable option for a child’s education… This homeschooler and statesman transformed the world, setting the course for freedom and away from tyranny… Americans owe their freedom to the efforts of our Founding Fathers and to this man who diligently studied and learned the truths of life at home.”
Just one small problem: George Washington is neither an example of homeschooling nor an example of education done well.
To some extent, deciding whether someone was/is homeschooled or not is complicated. There are so many different forms of home education these days. So let’s go ahead and set some arbitrary definitions. For “homeschooling,” we will use “to teach school subjects to one’s children at home.” And for “homeschooled” we will use a definition that HSLDA could agree with — the definition that HSLDA’s research buddy Brian Ray used earlier this year: “one should consider a person to be ‘homeschooled’ if the majority of his school years were in homeschooling.”
So let’s look at George Washington.
There isn’t a lot of information about Washington’s early life. Any legitimate account of his early life and education will admit this. So here are a few different accounts of what we do know:
George Washington’s education resulted from a process of close study and imitation of the Virginia elite… Born into mid-level gentry status, Washington seized opportunities to fill in gaps in his formal education… A formal education alone could not have imparted him with such admirable self-control. Washington’s social education enabled him to maintain a delicate balance between ambition and modesty throughout his life. (Source)
In the normal course of events, George Washington would have become an Oxford don and followed the profession of his English father… He received the least formal schooling of any of the Founding Fathers and remained self-conscious about this lack all his life… George Washington did not sit down and write of his childhood, as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin did… He seems to have been ashamed of his impoverished childhood and his poor education… He apparently began to learn to read, write, and keep sums from a tutor, a convict… By the time his brother Lawrence returned in his red-and-blue uniform, George was already crossing the river each morning to the log schoolhouse in Fredericksburg… In all, George Washington received between seven and eight years of schooling. For nearly four years, he took the ferry each morning to Fredericksburg. (Source)
Between seven and eight years of schooling. Four under the tutelage of a convict and four at a public log school. This is a very different story than Gatto’s “two years” fable. And what schooling Washington got was scarce, so scarce that Gatto saying Washington’s lack of formal education was somehow positive is an insult to Washington’s experience. Why? Because Washington did not consider his lack of formal education to be positive:
Washington had only limited formal schooling. In later life, he felt somewhat self-conscious about what he considered his ‘defective education.’ Spurred by this sense of deficiency, he developed a lifelong habit of reading… Despite this effort, he remained unsure of his learning.” (Source)
So self-conscious was he of his lack of education, and so defective did he consider the little bit of education that he received, that Washington went out of his way to educate his stepson, Jack Custis. He hired a private tutor for both Jack and his sister Patsy for over six years. He sent Jack to boarding school in Maryland. After boarding school Washington sent Jack to New York for college. And note, Wasington “left the direction of Jack’s schooling to these instructors.”
This cannot be overstated: George Washington was embarrassed by his lack of education. Self-conscious. Ashamed. You can see how this influenced him in his advocacy for public education near the end of his life:
As George Washington ended his term as the first president of the United States, he left with a few parting words. Washington’s Farewell Address of 1796 delineated many of the recommendations Washington had for the future of his country. Amongst these suggestions was a public education system. (Source)
In this address Washington said,
Amongst the motives to such an Institution, the assimilation of the principles, opinions and manners of our Country men, but the common education of a portion of our Youth from every quarter, well deserves attention. The more homogeneous our Citizens can be made in these particulars, the greater will be our prospect of permanent Union; and a primary object of such a National Institution should be, the education of our Youth in the science of Government. (Source)
So let’s get this straight: Washington’s dad bought a full-time tutor for him. Washington also attended an institutional school for at least 50% of his education. And somehow he was homeschooled? Since when was homeschooling considered 50% being tutored by a convict and 50% attending a public school?
This fails both the definition of “homeschooling” and the definition of “homeschooled.”
Even if you still consider Washington to be homeschooled, there’s the more important aspect of this story: George Washington had the least formal education of the Founding Fathers and considered that a bad thing. He considered his lack of more formal education to be defective to the point that it obviously haunted him for his entire life. This spurred him to push for public education for his own relatives and the brand new United States of America.
That’s a “homeschooled” hero?
Look, I don’t mind if people create lists of famous homeschoolers. It’s a testimony to the fact that homeschooling can be awesome and has been awesome and that education should be democratic and flexible and tailored to every individual. But if you’re going to create a list of famous homeschoolers, I have two very simple rules:
(1) Make sure the people were actually homeschooled.
(2) Make sure the people don’t consider their education defective.
Including George Washington violates both of those rules.
Of course, if George Washington were alive today and said his “homeschooling” (if you still want to consider it that) was lacking and defective and he wished he could have gone to that log school more, we already know from Josh Powell’s situation how HSLDA would respond. It would be something like, “Buck up, kiddo! Log schools crush creativity! Be glad you got taught by that convict at home!”