Podcast #366: Teach Yourself Like George Washington

George Washington has become an archetype of the great American leader. Subsequent generals and presidents all have been compared to Washington, and in the American mythos, they all fall short of this founder’s military and political genius. What many people don’t know about Washington, however, is that his formal schooling abruptly ended at age 11 with the death of his father and that he was largely self-taught. My guest today wrote an intellectual biography of Washington and how this autodidact rose to American apotheosis despite lacking the classical education of his Revolutionary contemporaries. 

Her name is Dr. Adrienne Harrison and her book is A Powerful Mind: The Self-Education of George WashingtonToday on the show, Adrienne discusses how her time as a combat officer in Iraq led her to researching and writing her doctoral dissertation about Washington’s intellectual journey. We then discuss why Washington’s education was deficient compared to other Founding Fathers like Jefferson and Adams, how this lack made Washington extremely self-conscious, and what he did to mitigate ever revealing it. Dr. Harrison then takes us through how Washington charted his own education throughout the different stages of his life and career to help him become a wealthy landowner, successful general, and first executive of the United States. Adrienne also takes us on a tour of Washington’s personal study and library and what is says about his learning style. We end our discussion on lessons we can take from Washington on maintaining a passion for lifelong learning. 

Show Highlights

  • Dr. Harrison’s lifelong interest in George Washington
  • What makes her biography of Washington different from the hundreds of ones to come before 
  • Why didn’t Washington get a traditional classical education? 
  • When do we start to see Washington’s auto-didactic nature 
  • Washington’s practical reading habits 
  • How Washington started the Seven Years’ War
  • How Washington responded to that failure 
  • Why Washington implored his troops to read 
  • His approach to reading 
  • How his reading and self-education made him American 
  • The way Washington’s reading changed during the war, and how it impacted his leadership 
  • How Washington’s reading informed his governing 
  • Highlights from Washington’s personal library 
  • Why his study was off limits 
  • Why Adrienne learned about self-teaching from writing about Washington

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