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I LOVED BEING READ TO as a child and I loved reading. I well remember beloved characters from my childhood: Pip and Miss Havisham from Great Expectations; Meg and The General from Seven Little Australians; the sisters from Little Women; Blinky Bill. They were masterpieces to me because I loved the characters so much and I gladly rented space in my head to the plot and character as I long pondered the character’s lives after the book was returned to the shelf. Imagine my surprise to discover my beloved childhood stories each made lists of Classic literature (did you know there are different lists and that each country has a set of national books?).
Imagine a greater surprise to discover that classic fiction forms an important part of leadership training at leadership school. No wonder I love learning about becoming a leader. Imagine my absolutely sheer delight to discover that reading and loving the classics is a part of a Thomas Jefferson Education, coupled with the use of a mentor to help guide the reading, discuss thoughts and feelings connected to the reading and to undertake projects arising from the reading of classics – projects like perhaps a visit to a place talked about in the book or an act of service similar to what a character undertook.
A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century (Oliver DeMille, 2013, TJED.org) is not a book I would choose by cover, name or back cover blurb. Clearly about an American political dude, I know little about American history and politics past the Clinton antics. I chose the book because I read two other books of the author’s and I loved them for their philosophical thinking and ability to spark ideas in my mind. Obviously I am motivated by loyalty and my ability to critically think rather than anything to do with a country that is not mine (I am Australian, hence my inclusion above of our classics: Seven Little Australians and Blinky Bill).
In this non-fiction book about a different education curricula coupled with mentoring and the American historical figures that influenced the rise of a curricula called “classic”(because they were educated via the classics), I absolutely love DeMille’s unconventional academic style of joining with his reader as though across the kitchen table. Reading the book was akin to having peer social-chats over boring text books (that you are supposed to be studying) in a library full of academics some that think themselves far superior to everyone else because of their university education.
Don’t get me wrong; I have a university degree and post-graduate diplomas. I even tutored at university and daily dream about doing a PhD. I have also used an “unschooling” approach with one of my children when he was home-schooled but I still checked our unschooled activities against where he would have been if he was in a traditional school (referred to as “Conveyor Belt” education by DeMille). I value education, learning and difference……and enter left stage, Oliver DeMille with A Thomas Jefferson Education and a refreshing difference to what I thought a classic education was (I thought boring and God-centric).
Setting the stage with leadership and everyday life lessons learned with the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers, DeMille framed from the beginning that his book was a practical stepping stone of reflective leadership development in students of all ages so that when contemporary crisis occurs, community based leaders are ready to take charge. What is the basis of this leadership preparation: Reading, looking at and experiencing the emotionally rich human behaviours inherent in the classics while working with a mentor (parent or respected peer) to delve deeper and deeper into the meanings within the classic. Classics expose the individual to the great ideas of humanity, and in those great ideas lie the solutions for contemporary living and response. Mentors know the person studying the classic and can therefore tailor learning stages to meet the needs of the individual.
A philosophy of educating differently with a suggestion of steps and not a How-to, this book is for anyone:
- Who dares to dream of educating in a different way – the way that Thomas Jefferson was educated (through study of the classics and via discussion with his mentor)
- Who knows that either they, or their children, do not fit the modern classroom
- Who thinks outside the square classroom and can individualise learning plans and pedagogy to suit a particular student and situation
- Who needs dot points of learning phases and Keys of Great Teaching to follow and tick off as you meet them in your mentoring of a student
- Who wants to develop their people and leadership skills (it is a prospectus for setting up a leadership school)
- Who is looking past the accepted structure and into the difference, which is, essentially the traditional.
- Who wants to become a better reader and writer (reflective writing is a BIG part)
- Who wants to understand why there are different lists of classics
- Who wants to understand how a national book is a reflection of a central truth
- Who wants to use bibliotherapy (the use of the written word to help someone solve a problem) – counsellors and therapists especially.
Although I wasn’t initially attracted to the cover of this book, it does hold content clues that I completely missed. I thought of educational classics as only traditional literature and as heavy books in academic language written by seminal scientists and mathematician dudes. WRONG. DeMille’s classification of a classic is a work produced by a great teacher to be experienced in books, art, music and other media. Those teachers are cross discipline, cross genre, cross era and cross culture: academic writings AND the full gamut of the liberal arts. The cover depicts, among other images, a music manuscript for Fur Elise, Gandhi, an American Indian chief and a sculpture…..and I missed those clues.
There are many references to Christianity throughout the book, but, the author does suggest in several places that readers must adhere to their own deity and religious beliefs. I liked that the author was saying that although the classic lists he used were influenced by their National Book, The Bible, that it would not be appropriate for everyone. Even though Australia is a Christian country, we are a secular lot and alternative schooling is not as popular here as it is in the States. I would caution Aussie readers against dropping the book as soon as home-schooling or God is mentioned: the book is philosophical and encourages wider thinking and critical analysis. Just because DeMille is a practising Christian does not equate to this being a Christian book only for Christian people or home-schoolers.
Will I re-read this book? Absolutely; I am fascinated by the tenet of a National Book and I am on a mission to discover what Australians consider their National Book. I resonated strongly with DeMille’s Seven Keys of Great Teaching and am motivated to self-correct where I have gone wrong as a student, teacher and mentor. I appreciate that DeMille suggested that the lists of classics do change over the years and that National books are different for different nations. I will also now rewrite my white-paper on bibliotherapy and include some ideas from this book. Most importantly though, this book has re-energised my love of reading fiction and I am off to re-read from the Goodreads Australian Classics list.
To buy a copy of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century (Oliver DeMille, 2013, TJED.org), head to the LIFE Leadership online store.
This book review was written by Megan Bayliss, a semi retired Social Worker/Child Therapist and independent consultant of LIFE Leadership, a personal development and leadership training company.