Inside the Capitol

Friday, October 19, 2007

Presidents As Teachers?

FRI, 10-26-07

SANTA FE - what U.S. presidents would have made the best high school teachers? And what would they have taught?
Those questions recently were asked by USA Weekend, a newspaper supplement, to Richard Norton Smith, a history professor at Virginia's George Mason University. Smith is co-hosting a C-SPAN series this fall on presidential libraries, subtitled "History Uncovered," which will showcase newly unearthed historical treasures at our nation's 12 federally operated presidential libraries.
This column has spoken often about our nation's presidential libraries. My wife and I have seen most of them and feel they are a tremendous way to excite Americans about their country's history.
Granted, there are better ways to teach more and better facts more quickly than the presidential library system. But I challenge anyone to come up with a more interesting and entertaining method of presenting history.
Presidential libraries are much more than libraries where scholars come to pour through presidents' papers. They are that, but also museums for the public to enjoy and learn more about the president and the events that occurred during his presidency.
Oh sure, they present the president in a little better light than you might have seen him. But the museums are operated by the National Archives, which requires accuracy. The last presidential library to add a museum was the Nixon Library, following a lengthy disagreement between his two daughters on whether to let the National Archives in on interpreting their father's presidency.
Twelve museums currently are in the federal system, which dates back to President Herbert Hoover. Prior to that, presidents' papers relating to the public's business were considered private.
The National Archives did all it could to convince presidents to donate their papers to the Library of Congress, but many ended up in the hands of family, other libraries, collectors or they were intentionally destroyed.
Taxpayers don't foot the bill for all this. The last 12 presidents have raised money for the buildings and contribute to the maintenance. Those 12 presidents are equally divided between Republicans and Democrats. Their museums often are in their home towns or nearby. Some are in their adopted states, where they spent their final years.
The question often is asked whether the Clinton Center, as he calls it, promotes Hillary's presidential bid. We haven't been there yet, but from what I understand, the answer is yes.
We did visit the George H.W. Bush presidential Museum during George W. Bush's first presidential campaign and noticed the prominent display of the father-son presidencies of the Adams family. So it is possible to find a way to promote family dynasties.
But let's get back to who would make the best high school teachers. Smith chose mainly based on a president's career outside politics or their special interests. Nuclear engineer Jimmy Carter was chosen to teach science. Surveyor George Washington would be the geography teacher. Fitness advocate Teddy Roosevelt was the physical education teacher. Journalist Warren Harding was the school newspaper adviser.
Abraham Lincoln, whom I would have loved to have as a teacher, wasn't mentioned. Neither was Lyndon Johnson, the only president, to my knowledge, who actually was a high school teacher. The article did mention he once was a debate coach.
The truth is that none of our U.S. presidents may have made particularly good teachers. Sure, some of the same qualities are required of both. They all likely would have made good political science lecturers in college but there is another facet to being a good teacher.
Teach requires patience to bring along those who don't grasp a concept quickly. Especially in math and science, but also in other subjects, some people can intuitively grasp an idea without going through the steps we mere mortals have to employ. Those people have difficulty understanding how our minds work.
That may be true of many of our presidents. Let's let them snap their fingers and go about running our country while the teachers teach.

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