Topic: Education

Three Degrees to Washington: What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

by Kim Curtis, Research Editor
September 20, 2017

Miniature of Martha Parke Custis, as painted by Charles Willson Peale (1772). Courtesy of Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Throughout my childhood and young adulthood, I flirted with different answers to this ever-present question: teacher, pediatrician, school psychologist, child psychologist. Having earned a BA in psychology (and classics) from the University of Virginia in 2000, I settled on clinical psychologist, with the goal of teaching college students and treating patients. Since this required a PhD, I applied to several highly competitive doctoral programs but was rejected by all of them. What would have happened had I been accepted? For one thing, I would have missed becoming acquainted with George and Martha Washington.

It may seem like a reach for me to say that my psychology background and history, specifically of the founding era, go hand-in-hand. My father paved the way for me. For a graduate seminar in counseling, he wrote a psychoanalytic profile of Thomas Jefferson, in which he suggested that Jefferson’s fraught relationship with his mother led to his architectural fixation with domes! A field of academic scholarship with this approach actually exists: psychobiography analyzes the lives and psyches of historic figures. Psychobiographers Elizabeth Wirth Marvick, Jerome A. Winer, and James William Anderson took a psychoanalytic approach (like my father did) to profile Washington, Jefferson, and James Madison. Marvick, Winer, and Anderson concluded that Madison “most closely follows the model of the angry revolutionary striving to overcome his passivity toward the father and replace him with his own righteous authority.”1

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George Washington: Muse, Patron, and Lover of the Arts

by Katie Lebert, Communications Specialist
May 31, 2017

That Washington was not a Schollar is certain. That he was too illiterate, unlearned, unread, for his Station and reputation is equally past dispute. He had derived little no Knowledge from Reading; none from Travel, except in the United States, and excepting one Trip in his youth to one of the West India Islands and directly back again. From Conversation in publick and private, he had improved considerably and by Reflection in his Closet, a good deal. He was indeed a thoughtful Man.1

They say you crave what you cannot have. This was true for George Washington when it came to a formal education in the arts and sciences. Though his older half-brothers benefitted from schooling in England as adolescents, George did not. His father, Augustine Washington, died when George was only 11 years old, making it financially difficult for him to attend school. Although he was privately tutored in the following years, George Washington developed an insecurity about his lack of education and writing skills, which in turn motivated his words and actions, both public and private.2

Washington believed that books were useful to soldiers in their development of military acuity and discipline. Once, when his corps misbehaved, he suggested reading as an occupational necessity:

Remember, that it is the actions, and not the commission, that make the Officer—and that there is more expected from him than the Title. Do not forget, that there ought to be a time appropriated to attain this knowledge; as well as to indulge pleasure. And as we now have no opportunities to improve from example; let us read, for this desirable end. There is Blands and other Treatises which will give the wished-for information.3

Washington attended to the education of his adopted children and grandchildren as well, by providing them with books and tutors. Concerned that his stepson John Parke “Jacky” Custis did not appreciate his schooling, Washington advised Jacky’s instructor to more strongly divert the young man’s attentions from frivolities and back to his studies.4 To Washington’s alarm, his exhortations went unheeded. The Reverend Jonathan Boucher, Jacky’s tutor, complained:

In Truth, it is one of the worst Symptoms that I know of in Him, that He does not much like Books: & yet I have been endeavouring to allure Him to it, by every Artifice I cou’d think of. I hop’d that Cargo of Books wou’d have done it.5

When neither Jacky nor Martha acquiesced to Washington’s plea that Jacky complete his college education, Washington gave in, “contrary to [his] judgement.”6 Indeed, for Washington, a well-rounded education was necessary to render Jacky “useful to society.”7

George Washington’s honorary degree from Harvard College. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress. See Washington’s other honorary degrees by visiting their online collection of George Washington’s papers.

Such a belief reflected the 18th-century enlightenment idea that reason was the foundation of knowledge. Putting this into practice, then, required a commitment to intellectual self-improvement.

For the adult Washington, that meant reading. Consequently, he sought to amass a large and diverse library. Benefitting from the additions of the Custis estate, the Mount Vernon library boasted more than 1200 books at its largest size.8 Along with such reference tomes as A New and Complete Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, The World displayed; or a Curious Collection of Voyages and Travels and Cadmus: or, a Treatise on the Elements of Written Language, Washington collected works of history like The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and novels including The History and Adventures of Don Quixote.9

In leading a young nation, Washington’s passion for education shines brightest. He frequently advocated for the establishment of a national university for the arts and sciences. The subject was so important to him that he included it in his undelivered first inaugural address (see paragraph 62), his first annual address to Congress, and his Farewell Address. He believed that such an institution was crucial to the cultivation of American values and to an understanding of the principles that governed democratic society.10

Though Washington would not see the establishment of such an institution in his lifetime, he personally invested in its future. In his last will and testament, Washington set aside money for a national university as well as for a school for orphan children.11

Educational institutions and organizations honored Washington by bestowing on him honorary degrees.12 For a man so enamored with the arts and sciences, it is even more fitting that his life would be celebrated in verse. A living muse, Washington was the subject of numerous songs and poems, among them one by renowned poet Phillis Wheatley.

Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,

Thy ev’ry action let the goddess guide.

A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,

With gold unfading, Washington! be thine.13



  1. “From John Adams to Benjamin Rush, 22 April 1812,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, [This is an Early Access document from The Adams Papers. It is not an authoritative final version.]
  2. David Humphreys, The Life of General Washington (Athens, Ga., 2006), 6.
  3. “Address, 8 January 1756,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series 2: 256–58.
  4. “From George Washington to Jonathan Boucher, 16 December 1770,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series 8: 411–12.
  5. “To George Washington from Jonathan Boucher, 18 December 1770,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series 8: 413–17.
  6. “From George Washington to Myles Cooper, 15 December 1773,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series 9: 406–7.
  7. “From George Washington to Benedict Calvert, 3 April 1773,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series 9: 209–11.
  8. Amanda C. Issac, Take Note!: George Washington the Reader (2013).
  9. Ibid. See also Mount Vernon’s catalogue of George Washington’s Library:
  10. “From George Washington to the United States Senate and House of Representatives, 8 January 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series 4: 543–49.
  11. “George Washington’s Last Will and Testament, 9 July 1799,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series 4: 479–511.
  12. “From George Washington to the President and Faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, 20 April 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series 2: 86–87.
  13. “Enclosure: Poem by Phillis Wheatley, 26 October 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series 2: 242–44.

As We Give Thanks for Pilgrims and Turkeys, Let Us Not Forget Our Two Most Iconic Presidents

by Thomas Dulan, Associate Editor
November 28, 2016

The origin of Thanksgiving Day in America is a bit of a moving target. Tradition has it that Thanksgiving has been handed down to us from the Pilgrims and friendly Wampanoag Indians, who joined together for a celebratory feast in November 1621 to give thanks for a bountiful harvest. In grade schools throughout the United States, construction-paper silhouettes of Pilgrim hats, Indian headdresses, turkeys, and cornucopias have withstood many changings of the generational guard as part of November’s classroom décor.

In recollections of the now-distant past, I can envision as well the similar cutout depictions—in black construction paper—of our two most celebrated and mythologized presidents: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.  I can no longer state with any certainty whether George and Abe adorned my classroom in company with the Pilgrims and turkeys, or whether I am merely conflating memories of November’s classroom décor with February’s. And yet, if our iconic first and sixteenth presidents were not memorialized in classroom wall festoons in November, then more’s the pity in lessons lost, for each belongs front-and-center in the story of Thanksgiving Day in America.

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Elementary, kids, it was just bloody good sense: Why, when the dye was cast, the British wore red

"Battle of Bunker Hill" by Percy Moran. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

“Battle of Bunker Hill” by Percy Moran. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

By Thomas Dulan, Assistant Editor
April 19, 2016

“Why did the British soldiers wear red? That doesn’t seem very smart.”

It might have been Matt, sitting at the very back of the classroom, who asked the question; or it might have been Caleb, a couple of desks away. But it definitely was Sonia who immediately shot her hand in the air with a ready answer.

“It was so the blood wouldn’t show on their uniforms,” she responded knowingly.

So knowingly, in fact, that I was surprised when she couldn’t recall her source of information, other than to indicate it was outside the classroom. It just didn’t seem like the sort of tidbit a fifth-grader would pick up in the course of her everyday reading or conversation. So I tucked away Sonia’s response as another in a pocketful of amusements gathered during my two days of speaking to Mr. Hicks’s social studies class at Meriwether Lewis Elementary School. The more I tried to entertain the fifth-graders, the more they turned the tables on me.

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Class Uncovers Story About George Washington’s Dentures

It’s not often we find information about George Washington on a website for dental hygiene! Last week, Rachel Martin, a volunteer instructor for a youth-center history program, shared with us how two of her students had found such a resource as part of their class assignment to research the Revolutionary War online. Proud that her students went above and beyond, Martin explained how the students had actually found the resource while further researching George Washington and the Revolutionary War at home. Continue reading

George’s Farm Animals in the Classroom

By Caitlin Conley
April 24, 2015

Caitlin is a Research Assistant for the Bibliography Project and is part of the Papers of George Washington social media team.

We recently produced a series of short, educational videos called “George’s Farm Animals,” which directly feature GW’s documents. Even though the videos focused in turn on his cattle, sheep, hogs, and mules, the documents concerning these animals also show his daily life at Mount Vernon, the importance of agriculture in the United States, his network of foreign connections, and even a glimpse of his elusive personal side. We hoped that educators would find them useful in classrooms, and that kids would enjoy learning about George and his monumental achievements from the perspective of his daily home life.

Emily Marrs is a public educator who teaches second grade at Foothills Elementary School in Colorado Springs, Colorado. She generously agreed to show “George Washington’s Black Cattle,” featuring George’s cows, to her second graders and to tell us if they found it interesting. Here are the comments they gave her:

AM class

What was your favorite part of the video?

-Walking into the manure

-Liked learning about George Washington

-Everything about the manure!

-Hearing the letters that he wrote

-Seeing the animals

-The music was nice and felt calm

-That the girl had a coat like mine! (one of my girls has a coat like yours!)

-That it was on a farm


What is something new that you learned from the video?

-That he liked cattle

-That he had a thousand animals on his farm

-Manure was gold!

-He had five farms

-He liked animals

-He was also a farmer and that he had so many different jobs!

-He named his cattle

-His farm was 8 thousand acres

-He got food from his cattle

-His cattle worked on the farm

-That people now can read all the letters and diary pages that he wrote so long ago


PM class

What was your favorite part of the video?

-The girl almost stepping in manure

-Told us more about what George liked

-That we got to see the hens!

-How the girl talked about manure

-They showed the actual letters that he wrote

-It was fun seeing real animals and the real farm that he had

-That a someone was reading his real letters out loud to us


What is something new that you learned from the video?

-He hired farm hands to help him with the animals, so he must have had a lot!

-That he was a farmer

-That manure was so important

-That he had three different jobs!

-That manure was used for fertilizer

-That he had five farms

-That he had over a thousand animals

-All the acres he had

-That he would plow

-That he liked experimenting

-That he owned cattle

-Surprising that his favorite job was farming


Emily herself says:

“As a public educator I am always looking for new ways to engage my students in the classroom. That is why I was so excited when I discovered the “George’s Farm Animals” series. The short videos were both engaging and educational, and were integrated in effortlessly with our Famous American’s unit and our President’s Day activities. My class really enjoyed learning about a different aspect of George Washington and his love for his animals, a topic that isn’t generally focused on in basic elementary text books and curriculum. I have shared the YouTube links with fellow educators who were also highly pleased with the quality and the content that the videos provide. I have shown three of the animal series videos to support several different lessons in my class, and I am eager to see what content they are producing next!”

Thank you Emily–we’re excited too!

If you have a story of how you have used the videos, please let us know!