Stepping Outside the Cave: Your Turn

Remember our big question last week? Have you decided to leave the cave? How did you respond?

Here is a quote that hit me squarely between the eyes several years ago.

All men who have turned out worth anything have had the chief hand in their own education. —Sir Walter Scott

My wife Linda and I have been asked if we founded John Adams Academy to “fix” education. The answer is NO! The academy was inspired by a desire to remedy our own educational deficits and inspire virtue and character through education. In other words, to fix ourselves

If you were to step back in time twenty years, you would see that I had prestigious degrees from prominent universities. I also had numerous professional designations. But I did not have an education.

It was during a seminar entitled “Face to Face with Greatness” taught by Oliver DeMille, an inspiring and influential teacher in my life, that I realized I was undereducated. In the seminar, Dr. DeMille spoke  of the founding fathers, of the writings of great philosophers and of the exceptional education of Thomas Jefferson. While there, it struck me how selfless and publicly-minded the Founding Fathers  were. They left their homes and businesses to build on the principles of natural law: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and that all men are created equal. They felt so strongly about those principles that they freely pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor. Would I do the same? How could I? I didn’t have the depth or breadth of education to inspire others.  

One of the closely held personal beliefs I dispelled that day was that Dr. DeMille could educate me. But he could inspire me, and he did. From that point forward I decided to educate myself.

I embarked on this personal educational journey twenty years ago, and yet I have still only just begun. Great teachers inspire, scholars educate. Education happens when we get excited about what we are learning and then share it. 

My mentor Dr. DeMille put it this way:

There are two types of great teachers which consistently motivate scholar-driven education: Mentors and Classics. Mentors (parents and teachers) meet face-to-face with the student, inspiring through the transfer of knowledge, the force of personality, and individual attention. Classics were created by other great teachers to be experienced in books, art, music, and other media. Any system of education which attempts to separate the student from the teachers, classics and mentors, will be less inspiring and therefore less effective—fewer scholars will choose to seek an education and those who do will be less likely to follow through.

—Oliver DeMille, A Thomas Jefferson Education

The Classics 

From Aristotle to Montesquieu and Locke to Adams, great individuals studied other great individuals. A classic is a work that can be experienced many times over and give something new each time. A classic or great book has four essential qualities: a great theme, noble language, universality and they represent the greatest virtues of a given civilization at its apex.

Classics open our eyes to the true nature of our world and take us across the divide that separates one mind from another. They reveal to us our essential humanity, its beauty and its horror, and they hold a mirror up to our unknown selves. With a message of truth that echoes in our lives long after we’ve turned the final page, a true classic speaks to the heart and soul.

Classics teach us about human nature. They allow us to experience in an intimate way the greatest mistakes and successes of human history. Understanding how others think, feel and act allows us to predict behavior and helps us develop empathy, compassion, and wisdom in our relationships with others.

Classics bring us face-to-face with greatness. As we study the characters, real or fictional, we are inspired by their greatness, which is the first step to becoming great ourselves.

Reading gives us powerful insight into our fellow humans. In classics we can live inside the character. We experience his or her thoughts, feelings, motivations and consequences as they do. Classics force us to quietly study, ponder, analyze, ask, discover, cry, laugh, struggle, feel, and above all, become.

Because we are then better individuals, we are motivated to go out and serve others.

Great literature is miraculous because it makes available to us things that we cannot get in any other way. A classic gives us the personal wisdom to be better as an individual and a citizen of a free nation.

The Mentor 

Let’s look at Thomas Jefferson. How was Jefferson educated? We know he was orphaned at the age of 14. How could a young man in those circumstances leave the cave?

Despite his challenges he spoke of a day that changed his life May 29th, 1765. Jefferson attended a debate on the Stamp Act by Patrick Henry. He said of that day, “I attended the debate standing at the door of the lobby of the House of Burgesses and heard the splendid display of Mr. Henry’s talents as a popular orator. They were great indeed, such as I have never heard from any other man. He appeared to me to speak as Homer wrote.” (National Archive)

Jefferson later said that day kindled a flame in his soul that sent a surge of fervor for freedom and justice in him. That flame burned bright the rest of his days. Shortly thereafter, he found a mentor in law school by the name of George Wythe. So impactful is the role of mentor in an education, Jefferson would later say of him, “Mr. Wythe continued to be my faithful and beloved Mentor in youth, and my most affectionate friend through life.”(National Archive)

Jefferson placed a high value on his education calling it “my great good fortune, and what probably fixed the destinies of my life.” (National Archive)

The Outcome

Jefferson’s objective was to receive an education, not necessarily a degree. In fact, he thought degrees were pretentious. His was the scholar-driven education DeMille lauds. Jefferson was drawn to the classics and mentored by other committed scholars.

What was the outcome of this education? Later in Jefferson’s life he would be described as such:

When he spoke of the law I thought he was a lawyer, when he talked about mechanics I was sure he was an engineer, when he got into medicine it was evident he was a physician, when he discussed theology I was convinced he must be a clergyman, when he talked of literature I made up my mind I had run up against a college professor that knew everything.

— From The Making of America, Cleon Skousen

Questions to ponder: 

How valuable can an educated person be to the world, America and his fellow man?

Who is your mentor?

What are your classics?

Did you pick a classic and begin?

Have you begun your rendezvous with the classics?

Your journey should include your children or a mentor and read/discuss it with them. 

What are you learning? Find a mentor. Be a mentor to someone else. Pick a classic, read and discuss it with them. Anything less may not draw out the latent genius and excellence in yourself or others.


Published by Dean Forman

I am co-founder and CEO of the John Adams Academies, an institution that is perhaps the most unique charter school system in America today. The Academies’ curriculum is designed to give its students an American Classical Leadership Education®. This is an education that pursues truth, beauty and goodness and turns its scholars outward in search of those whom they can serve in becoming servant leaders. This website is dedicated to sharing the concepts of an American Classical Leadership Education with its readers so that more citizens can benefit from the truth, virtue and wisdom of the past. The thoughts and opinions I share on this page are my personal views.

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