Blog: The Educated Reporter

Presidents Day: Would Lincoln or Washington Approve of Closing Schools?

The third Monday in February is better known for its association with good deals on sleeper sofas and sedans than for the presidential birthday supposedly being commemorated. For millions of American schoolchildren, it’s also a day off from class.The official name of the federal holiday is Washington’s Birthday, although the nation’s first president was born on Feb. 22. However, the date is widely referred to as Presidents Day, and many states use it to recognize the Feb. 12 birthday of Abraham Lincoln, as well.

Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Virginia, has pushed for legislation that would move the holiday to the first president’s actual birthday.

The intent is “to honor his legacy, and in doing so call upon schools across the nation to focus on Washington as the soldier, legislator, and president who shepherded our young nation through war, political turmoil, rebellion and expansion as no other single individual was capable of doing,” Wolf said in a statement.

Given that school districts across the country have cut instructional days to make up for budget shortfalls, and educators are continually be told to add more to the K-12 curriculum without also adding more time, a question comes to mind: How might George Washington and Abraham Lincoln respond to classes being canceled in commemoration of their birthdays?

Renowned Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer, who served as director Steven Spielberg’s film consultant, said the 16th president probably would have been “absolutely appalled” to know his birthday was associated with a day off from school.

“His great quote was ‘Work, work, work is the main thing,’” said Holzer, chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation. “This was a man who always regretted his own lack of educational opportunities. He was for week-long, month-long, year-long and lifelong learning.”

Indeed, Lincoln’s first-ever political statement — published by a local newspaper when he sought a seat in the Illinois General Assembly — included these words:  “Upon the subject of education, not presuming to dictate any plan or system respecting it, I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in.”

Lincoln’s path as a self-taught man, with almost no formal schooling, is well known. He was an incessant reader, realizing that books would open doors not only to knowledge but also to opportunity. In a speech to the Wisconsin Agricultural Society in 1859, Lincoln proclaimed that “a capacity, and taste, for reading, gives access to whatever has already been discovered by others … it is the key, or one of the keys, to the already solved problems. And not only so. It gives a relish, and facility, for successfully pursuing the (yet) unsolved ones.” 

At the same time, Lincoln knew that despite his best efforts to learn independently he still lacked the academic credentials carried by many of his peers, said Holzer, whose most recent book is “Emancipating Lincoln: The Proclamation in Text, Context and Memory.” When Lincoln and other freshmen lawmakers arrived in Congress, they were asked to fill out a detailed biographical questionnaire. In the section asking for specifics about his education, Holzer said, Lincoln simply wrote one word: “Defective.” 

As for the first president, he would probably see some value in a brief respite from studying, said historian and University of Virginia Prof. Edward G. Lengel, the author of the 2011 book “Inventing George Washington.

In 1797, Washington received a letter from his step-grandson asking if he should take a break from his books at Princeton to attend a ball commemorating the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. In his reply, Lengel said, Washington suggested that if it was the tradition to attend the ball, “I see no reason why you should have avoided it.”

However, that advice should be viewed within the broader context of the significant emphasis Washington placed on learning, Lengel said. 

Washington affirmed “the importance of diligence in studies, maintaining a constant and consistent schedule, and not being distracted by idle amusements or bad company,” Lengel said. “If he thought time off was getting excessive, that students were not paying attention to their course of studies, he certainly would have been opposed to it.”

Like Lincoln, Washington’s life circumstances kept him from formal schooling, and it was a deficit he struggled to overcome. As a result, he was even more keenly aware of the value of education to both to the individual, and to the Republic.

“He believed education was critically important,” said Lengel, who is editor in chief of the Papers of George Washington project at the University of Virginia. “In order for the citizenry to be active, and to have a positive influence on the nation, they had to be well educated.” 


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