A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders For the Twenty-First Century by Oliver DeMille

Jan 22, 2013

A good friend of mine told me about A Thomas Jefferson Education almost a year ago. At the time, it interested me because education always interests me, but I didn't rush out to read it. But then, another friend told me about an "Education Principles Group" her sister-in-law had just started. And what was their first reading to be? A Thomas Jefferson Education. I jumped at the chance because I always get more out of somewhat dense and heavy texts if I have someone to discuss it with.

I guess that means I just called A Thomas Jefferson Education "a dense and heavy text," which it kind of is but also kind of is not. It is because it discusses ideas that, in order to really understand, you have to think about, ponder, discuss with others, and then think about some more. I have a feeling I barely scratched the surface with this reading. However, on the other hand, it isn't "dense or heavy" in the sense that it uses a lot of difficult words or complex sentences. It's written in plain, pretty simple, English.

And just what is "A Thomas Jefferson Education"? It's education that is guided by mentors and the classics but which places the responsibility for learning squarely on the shoulders of the student. It is returning to the same kind of education received by our forefathers (hence, the name "A Thomas Jefferson Education"). It is the kind of education that will produce great leaders.

And who is learning the TJEd way? Oliver DeMille says it would be wonderful and ideal if everyone was learning this way (and he claims that it is possible in a public school setting), but really, it's most often implemented through home schools. However, I think you'll notice every time that those who are truly successful and become great and influential leaders were heavily influenced by one or more mentors and the classics (classics not just reserved for literature but meaning the classics that are found in every subject), regardless of what their formal schooling was actually like.

I think it's definitely possible to take any education and turn it into a TJEd. Parents guide and direct the education of their children in all settings, but obviously if they're going to public school, they're away for seven or more hours a day, and so that doesn't leave very much time to learn from mentors and the classics unless they're getting that in school.

I thought DeMille made an interesting point in the book when he said this: "In the history of education, the current American system is very non-traditional, very different from what has been done for generations. Almost everybody in America today is getting the kind of education that has historically been reserved for those who simply had no other options." (pp. 26-27) If you look at the past, those who were well enough off went to a private school or engaged a private tutor. It was only those who couldn't afford better that went to public schools. While I think this is interesting to note, I'm not completely sure I agree with it. I know there are many flaws in our current education model, but I also know that there is much to be gained from studying and learning together not just alone or with an elitist group.

Which is not necessarily what Oliver DeMille is even saying. Later on in the book, he discusses the "Five Pillars of Statesmanship," as he calls them. And two of these ("simulations" and "field experience") both involve working with other people. Also, he frequently states the "Five Environments of Mentoring," which includes group discussion.

(See what I mean? Even trying to write a review of this book is difficult because there are so many competing ideas and avenues of thought.)

DeMille frequently refers to the "conveyor belt" method of education, which seems to be the standard method in most public schools. DeMille explains it this way: the "...standards and grade levels are set at a low enough level that virtually everyone can get through and be a finished product. What happens if you try to get ahead? A factory worker moves you back into place. What if you get behind? A 'special' worker pulls you up to speed." (p. 25) DeMille says we use this type of method because it is moderately successful in training the future workforce of America, but it is not successful in training future leaders.

Let me try to sum up some of my thoughts with a series of questions and answers:

Q: Do I agree with a TJEd?
A: Yes. I believe that mentors and the classics are essential to a good education. I also believe that teachers inspire students to learn on their own. No teachers actually teach.

Q: Do I disagree with a TJEd?
A: Yes. I think in a lot of ways DeMille idealizes the education of the founding fathers. But then, I also realize I have a lot of my own reading and studying to do, so I can't offer a very solid opinion on this yet.

Q: Will I use the TJEd model in my own home?
A: Yes, of course! Mentors and classics are essential. We are already employing them as much as we can with our young children.

Q: So if I homeschool, will I use a TJEd?
A: Yes, to the extent I stated above, but no, I will not structure it as DeMille suggests. He talks about the four phases of learning. The first phase (the Core Phase, encompassing the years 0-8) involves a lot of free play and exploring learning in a very unstructured way. Even the next phase (the Love of Learning Phase, encompassing ages 8-12) is still very much child-guided as they choose what to learn about and what interests them. In this way, this method reminds me a lot of what I've heard about "unschooling." (I've also heard those who are familiar with both adamantly refute that they are not the same, so again, I need to do more research and studying.) This unstructured type of learning is not the way that I learn best, and so I don't think I could guide my children very well using this type of method either. (But I would never say "never" because I have no idea what growth and change might happen over the next ten years that might make me change my mind.)

Q: So will I homeschool?
A: At the current time, no (meaning in the formal sense and not that there will not be any learning going on in our home. Far from it!). But in the future? Possibly. Right now, I'm quite happy and content with the thought of Aaron going to public school. But I'm still exploring my options.

A Thomas Jefferson Education is worth your time no matter what your thoughts on education are. I guarantee you'll find something to like and dislike. And you might even discover some things you want to change in your current approach to education.


  1. I like some of the ideas behind TJ Ed, but I disagree with the premise that that kind of education will create leaders. It creates thinkers and ponderers, and in the days of this country's forefathers, that was really all the higher education available. But realistically, the system does not intrinsically create leaders, just because it did so in Thomas Jefferson's day. The reason it did back then was because anyone who could read and write and reason (skills that relatively few adults in those days possessed) naturally was looked up to as a "leader". The bottom line with TJ Ed is that it advocates a quasi-classical education. But I personally wouldn't rely solely on it to educate my children. Their literature "greats" list is pretty limited. And they have a few on their that I question how they made the list. (C'mon, Louis L'Amore's The Lonesome Gods? Pardon me, but Louis L'Amore is probably one of the last writers I'd use as an example of great writing.)

    If you want a classical education, the best book I've found that addresses it is The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home by Susan Wise-Bauer, but try to get the original 1999 version, not the updated, revised version which focuses too much on it's own curriculum books.

    1. Corrections: that should have been "...they have a few on their list that I question..." and "...its [sans apostrophe] own curriculum books."

    2. Megan - YES! I couldn't exactly put my finger on what was bothering me about TJ Ed, but you hit it squarely on the head! I completely agree that it will definitely create thinkers but may or may not create leaders.

      And when I saw Louis L'Amore on the list, I had the same reaction as you. DeMille left off some giants but included L'Amore? What?! :-)

  2. Okay, I can't not say something :) (and we'll have to talk--like, using our vocal cords, the old-fashioned way!--more later, too). I've only actually read TJEd once, but I've talked about it and through it a LOT. I get what Megan is saying about the leader thing. I guess my thought it that it's still those who can read, write, and reason that become leaders--and "conveyor belt" education doesn't produce that many of those kind of people. I haven't gotten around to Well Trained Mind, but it's my understanding that it's a pretty rigorous classical schedule, even from the get-go with little people. That's a key difference between classical ed and "leadership" (TJ) ed. And I don't think that's good for such young children. I was so proud of Nathan for knowing all 26 letters by his 2nd birthday, but I haven't taken the same approach with Courtney--she's 3 1/2 and knows about half the alphabet. But it's been a joy to watch her figure things out on her own. And about the unschooling/core phase comparison: a TJEd course that I took includes a couple of books by John Holt, considered "the father of unschooling," so I know DeMille is cognizant of that ideology. But unschooling doesn't mean you don't do anything. It's simply the "Inspire, not Require" key enlarged. The kids may very well want to sit down and go through the "Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons" book.

    Now I'm rambling, but I was too impatient to percolate out a more articulate comment. Like I said, let's talk :). I ramble well in live conversation, too!

    1. Does DeMille mention John Holt in the book? I somehow missed that. I completely agree about the problems endemic in "conveyor belt" schooling, but I think John Holt's books address those problems in a more constructive and instructive way. The problem I see with DeMille's book is that it talks a lot of theoretics, but has very little to offer nuts and bolts wise. If you are interested in Unschooling, read John Holt's books. My favorites are How Children Learn and Learning All the Time. They were far more eye-opening and useful than DeMille's book to me. (And yes, I homeschool, mostly unschool my children.) John Taylor Gatto wrote some interesting and useful books on the history of public schooling (e.g. The Underground History of American Education) in this country that were also eye-opening, but they're a bit of a slog, and suffer from lack of editing, in my mind.

    2. I don't remember DeMille mentioning John Holt, but maybe I just wasn't familiar with his name. I didn't know that he was the man behind unschooling until I was at my education group meeting. We actually decided to read one of his books for our next meeting. It's one that you mentioned--"Learning All the Time." I'm really excited to read it.

    3. No, DeMille doesn't mention Holt in TJEd, I just know that he's aware of him and his work. I loved How Children Fail in addition to How Children Learn. Haven't made it to Learning All the Time yet; it's on my shelf. If you want to see how DeMille puts his principles into practice, read Leadership Education: Phases of Learning. TONS of specifics--some too specific for me :).

  3. I love books like this, they always get me thinking. I also want to check out the new biography of Thomas Jefferson that has been popping up every where. My sister recently started homeschooling her kids and it has been interesting to see the pros and cons first-hand.


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