The Early Education of Our Next President; Not Much in Public Schools

By Meyer, Peter | Education Next, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

The Early Education of Our Next President; Not Much in Public Schools


Meyer, Peter, Education Next


One of them, Barack Obama, was awakened at four in the morning in Jakarta to study from a correspondence course; the other, John McCain, attended grade school in old airplane hangars. Both went on to elite private high schools.

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Whether it is the image of Abraham Lincoln studying by log cabin candlelight or George Washington dutifully copying the Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation into his schoolboy notebooks, presidential schooling has long been a national fascination (see Figure 1).

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Today we have a graduate of Columbia College and Harvard Law (Obama) taking on a graduate of the Naval Academy and National War College (McCain). Harvard boasts seven presidents as alumni (including George W. Bush's business degree); the Naval Academy, just one (Jimmy Carter). But it is the early schooling--how did they get there?--that is most fascinating. George Washington's early education is remarkable for what is not known about it, but there is general agreement that if he had much formal education, it ended at about age 15. Teddy Roosevelt, said to have had an "uneven" education at home (strong in biology, French, and German but deficient in math, Latin, and Greek), graduated from Harvard magna cum laude. Harry Truman, the only president since 1897 who did not graduate from college, got up early too, at five in the morning, to practice piano.

We might ponder the fact that neither John McCain nor Barack Obama had the experience of attending the public school down the street, standard fare for most Americans. Just how the two candidates' early schooling informs their assumptions and beliefs about education reform is hard to know, but their stories provide an interesting window through which to view their policy beliefs (see sidebar, page 33).

Unique Men--In Similar Ways

After a grueling primary season this year--for the Democrats, at least--it seems in retrospect that there was something inevitable in the pairing of John McCain and Barack Obama as the two contenders for the presidency in 2008. Two distinct generations, two unique backgrounds, two very different world-views: white/black, old/young, right/left.

John McCain is a child of the thirties (born in Panama, August 29, 1936), and more than one commentator has noted the fact that we have yet to have a president who was born in that turbulent decade. He grew up in the middle of a hellish war in which his father and grandfather were both fighting.

Obama is a child of the sixties (born in Hawaii, August 4, 1961, another decade yet to produce a president) and like McCain in the 1940s, though too young to call it his war, came of age in the middle of a hellish conflict.

McCain is like an old shoe, known to us since that heroic return in 1973 from five and a half years of captivity in Vietnam. Obama is the new sneaker, a little-known Illinois state legislator before he delivered an electrifying keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Just two years later (October 23, 2006) he graced the coveted cover of Time, with the provocative headline, "Why Barack Obama Could Be the Next President."

Judging from their published memoirs, the early education of both men came mainly from what they were taught at home. If one goes by book titles--Dreams from My Father (Obama, 1995) and Faith of My Fathers (McCain, 1999)--Dad was key, but in fact both credit their mothers for much of their success. "What is best in me I owe to her," says Obama about his mother, Ann, who died in 1995 at age 52 of ovarian cancer. John McCain calls his mother, Roberta, age 96 and still a presence on the campaign trail, his principal teacher, and much of the story of his early life, as he writes, is how "I became my mother's son."

Despite their book titles, both candidates in fact grew up missing their fathers. …

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