Where are the youthful John and Abigail Adams-level leaders for the 21st century right now? Who are they? How will they prepare? Who will guide them? Are they getting an education that is worthy of the challenges ahead for this nation and the world?
The Patriotic Sequence is where such individuals are found and made. The pattern, in which we begin as pioneers and end as citizens and servant leaders, is one from which we can all learn. It was followed by John Adams—reading the classics, discussing great ideas with parents and family members, taking charge of his own education at an early age, and digging even more deeply into the classics during his youth. He continued this love of learning in the great classics during his time at Harvard and for the rest of his life—as a husband and father, in business, as an ambassador in Europe, while serving as vice president and later president of the United States and as an elder statesman in his later years. He was an active citizen and at different times a pilgrim, pioneer, hero, and patriot. He always saw his life work and mission as serving the great brotherhood of humanity.
It is important to note that all of this was built on the foundation of his childhood and youth education. This foundation in the classics, the great ideas, set the standard and marked the path for everything else that came later. This is what great education does.
Benjamin Franklin — The Quintessence of the Patriotic Sequence
The same can be said of several Adams’ contemporaries, including his wife Abigail, his son John Quincy, his cousin Sam Adams, and others such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Patrick Henry, Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin. As an older peer who was already accomplished and admired when Adams was coming of age, Franklin especially provided an example of the servant leadership that inspired Adams in his education and development.
Note in what follows that Franklin’s path to leadership followed a similar pattern to the Patriotic Sequence. As a child Ben learned that all education is self-education. By his early youth he took charge of his own education, stating, “From a child I was fond of reading, and all the little money that came into my hands was ever laid out in books…. Often I sat up in my room reading the greatest part of the night, when the book was borrowed in the evening and to be returned early in the morning lest it should be missed or wanted.” (Eliot, Charles W. The Harvard Classics, Volume 1. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1937.) The books he read were mostly classics, including such greats as Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Xenophon’s The Memorable Things of Socrates. Reading and learning became his routine and his passion.
Each season of life found him making discoveries and creating his personal story by being anxiously engaged in building a future for himself, his community, and his country. Franklin wrote, “It is in youth that we plant our chief habits and prejudices; it is in youth that we take our party as to profession, pursuits, and matrimony…in youth the education is given…character is determined…”
A Man Worthy of Renown
Adams noted that Franklin, among all his contemporaries, was famous and admired not only in the American colonies but also in Great Britain. Few of the London elite had even heard of Washington or Jefferson when Adams reached adulthood, but every English gentleman knew about Benjamin Franklin. Young Ben was taught by his father the following proverb: “Seest thou a man diligent in his calling, he shall stand before kings, he shall not stand before mean men.” He spoke of this later in life.
I considered industry as a means of obtaining wealth and distinction, which encouraged me, though I did not think that I should ever literally stand before kings, which, however, has since happened; for I have stood before five, and even had the honor of sitting with one, the King of Denmark, to dinner.Benjamin Franklin
Adams also noticed that Franklin worked very hard to accomplish his goals. An observer noted of the young upstart when he set out in his new printing business: “For the industry of that Franklin…is superior to any thing I ever saw of the kind; I see him still at work when I go home from club, and he is at work again before his neighbors are out of bed.”
Education is Always at the Heart of the Sequence
Again, like John Adams, Franklin’s trajectory in life was built on a foundation of youth education in great books and deep thinking. Franklin’s father discussed, nurtured, and encouraged great ideas: “At his table he liked to have, as often as he could, some sensible friend or neighbor to converse with, and always took care to start some ingenious or useful topic for discourse, which might tend to improve the minds of his children.”
Franklin also set an example of being willing to change when needed, and to engage the hard work of personal improvement. He described the difficulty of changing oneself with the following story:
A man buying an ax wanted the speckled surface to be as bright as the edge. The smith consented to grind it until bright if the man would turn the wheel of the grinding stone. The grinding was grueling. Fatigue set in, and the man suggested he would keep the ax as it was. “No,” said the smith, “turn on, turn on; we shall have it bright by-and-by; as yet, it is only speckled.”
Franklin observed, “…this may have been the case with many, who having, for want of some such means as I employed, found the difficulty of obtaining good and breaking bad habits in other points of vice and virtue, have given up the struggle, and concluded a speckled ax was best…”
For both Adams and Franklin, and many other founding leaders, great service was built on a foundation of great learning—often during their childhood and youth. The education of the young is in many ways the greatest agent of improvement and societal progress ever discovered by humanity. When we help a young person obtain a great education, fall in love with learning, take charge of his or her own education and catch a vision of becoming a true servant leader and making the world better, we are preparing a new generation of Franklins, Washingtons, Jeffersons, Lincolns, Abigails, Churchills, Joans of Arc, Mother Teresas and others like them. This is what quality education does.
What about now?
The American founding generation, deeply educated in the classics as youth, declared independence from the greatest power on earth at the time and created the longest surviving written constitution in recorded history. The founding of this nation offers perhaps the greatest act of liberating the mind of man the world has ever known. What a heritage! What a legacy!
And what a call to provide truly great education for the youth of our day. The great leaders of tomorrow are among today’s youth, right now thirsting for the kind of quality education they will need to make the world what it should be. If we fail the education of today’s youth, we are failing the whole world. If we help them get the right kind of education, we hold up a lamp of wisdom, hope and opportunity to the next generation, and beyond.