'From Classroom to White House'

Professor discusses his new book on presidents and first ladies -- as students and teachers.

January 18, 2012

Of the presidents and first ladies of the United States, half were teachers at some point in their careers. The group includes some for whom the work influenced their political ideals (think of Lyndon Johnson, a teacher-turned-politician who pushed for vast expansion of education programs at all levels). Some presidents of the United States were once college or university presidents. And there were plenty who were less-than-stellar students. These histories are mined in From Classroom to White House: The Presidents and First Ladies as Students and Teachers (McFarland), by James McMurtry Longo, chair of education at Washington and Jefferson College.

The book features short chapters on each president/first lady, with details on their educations, teaching careers where relevant and education policies. The chapter on Abraham Lincoln, for instance, notes his role in the creation of land-grant universities, and information about his careerlong interest in education. Longo notes that Lincoln's first and last public addresses were about education. In his last talk, he specifically praised the first post-Confederate constitution in Louisiana for providing for the education of black and white children. And with that statement, Lincoln became the first U.S. president to advocate for the education of African Americans.

Other details in the book are perhaps less significant and less flattering. Readers learn that Harry Truman's grade school teachers didn't expect him to go far, and that James Buchanan was asked to leave Dickinson College for "misconduct, arrogant attitude, and disrespect for teachers."

Longo recently responded to e-mail questions about the book.

Q: You credit the late Harold Howe II, a longtime professor and commissioner of education in the Johnson Administration, with inspiring the book. Please describe how that happened?

A: When I was a graduate student I began having lunch with Doc Howe. He shared many stories with me about how being a teacher influenced Lyndon Johnson as president. I began to wonder whether other presidents had been teachers and discovered half the presidents and first ladies had taught. When researching their teaching experiences I also came across many surprising stories about what they were like as students. That research eventually became  the basis for my book.

Q: Do you think that presidents' and first ladies' experiences as students say something about the kinds of leaders they became? About their approaches to higher education policy?

A: I do believe their experiences as students had a lot to do with how they approached higher education.

Lyndon Johnson's years as a student and then as a teacher convinced him nothing was more important to the nation's health than investing in education. Prior to his presidency, Congress had passed only six education bills since the Lincoln administration. Johnson signed 60 education bills into law and more than doubled the amount of federal funding for all levels of education. Lincoln had a limited education as a student but was a lifelong learner. His support of land-grant colleges allowed students with limited resources to attain an affordable college education.

Betty and Jerry Ford, both student athletes, supported the Title IX Act opening up athletics to women throughout all educational institutions. Harry Truman, like Lincoln, was a bright student with no money to go to college. His support of the GI Bill opened up higher education to millions. I believe dozens of other presidents can trace (or could have traced) their attitudes and policies toward higher education back to their own student experiences.

Q: Did the presidents and first ladies who were teachers show more sensitivity to education than did others?

A: Yes. Laura Bush and Eleanor Roosevelt, both former teachers, continually championed teachers during their White House years. Presidents who taught -- as diverse as John Adams, Warren G. Harding, Jimmy Carter, Lyndon Johnson and Barack Obama -- showed a great interest in, and sensitivity to, education. Their speeches on education are among the most eloquent ever made in this country.

Q: What is your sense of the influence of college or university presidencies on Presidents Garfield, Wilson and Eisenhower?

A: Despite the fact Eisenhower said he would rather go through another war than sit through one more faculty meeting, his time as president of Columbia University was positive. It broadened his experiences with diversity issues and deepened his appreciation of teachers, teaching, and education. Wilson said being governor of New Jersey and president of the United States was easy after dealing with the politics and trustees at Princeton. Garfield was deeply and positively influenced by being the president of a college. I think he might have been our first real education president had he not been assassinated early in his term.

Q: Many Republicans in recent years have attacked elite higher education institutions (even though plenty have attended them). What do you make of those attacks?

A: This is nothing new. Andrew Jackson, a Democrat and a former teacher in a one room school house, defeated John Quincy Adams, a former professor at Harvard, for the presidency in 1828 using similar tactics. The candidate who best projects a common man image usually wins.

Q: How do you see the current Republican field vs. President Obama on education background? Would you be surprised to see two ex-professors (Gingrich and Obama) as the candidates?

A: Education has increasingly become an issue in presidential politics and that is not going to change regardless of who is running for president. It would not surprise me to see two ex-professors running against each other for president for two reasons. 1) Once a professor, always a professor. 2) All professors think they can run the country.

P.S. The candidate that will win is the ex-professor most people think would give them an A.

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