Looking to Lincoln as we Start the 2020-2021 School Year

Nostalgia has no place in the 2020-2021 school year. Students will not huddle over shared books or computers during study sessions at the library. They won’t make funny faces or link together for a yearbook picture, hold hands in the hallway, or high five one another in the bleachers during a Varsity sports game.

Instead we will be left with new visions of school days. Students in masks standing well apart from one another; desks carefully spread out on playing fields; and classrooms that double as basements or bedrooms with a tiny optical image of an instructor imprisoned in a 2” x 2” square.

And yet, as ever, we draw inspiration from Abraham Lincoln, a man whose own education was marked by seemingly insurmountable obstacles and occurred almost entirely outside of the classroom.

Andrew Crawford’s School, where Abraham Lincoln briefly attended. Photo from The Lincolns: A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary by Candace Fleming.

Here are a few lessons from Abraham Lincoln to provide inspiration as we begin this 2020-2021 school year:

1. Education is vital

Reimagining American education for this upcoming school year is exhausting and expensive, individually and as a country. And yet, Lincoln, whose formal education amounted to little more than a year[1] repeatedly reminds us there is nothing more important,

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.[2]

2. “Stick to your purpose”

In the face of relentless zooming, mounting anxiety, and Internet connectivity issues, there is a temptation to succumb to frustration. In these moments of near-defeat, we can remember Lincoln’s words to a young man unhappy in his studies,

Adhere to your purpose and you will soon feel as well as you ever did. On the contrary, if you falter, and give up, you will lose the power of keeping any resolution, and will regret it all your life. Take the advice of a friend, who, though he never saw you, deeply sympathizes with you, and stick to your purpose.[3]


3. Keep a “point to point” mentality

As the unprecedented global pandemic unfolds, leaders and educators have to constantly reevaluate the public health situation and respond accordingly. Schools may open their doors, only to close them again, keeping students in perpetual flux. In these moments, it may be helpful to remember Lincoln’s “point to point” mindset. As he told a senator when asked what he would do when the Civil War ended,

The pilots on our Western rivers steer from point to point as they call it — setting the course of the boat no farther than they can see; and that is all I propose to myself in this great problem.[4]

4. When all else fails, teach yourself

Even for those people whose schools are failing them, there is hope. Lincoln believed strongly in investing in universal education, but shows us by example that it is possible to self-educate. He talked about the possibility of self-education in his eulogy of another success story, that of Henry Clay:

Mr. Clay’s education, to the end of his life, was comparatively limited. I say “to the end of his life,” because I have understood that, from time to time, he added something to his education during the greater part of his whole life. Mr. Clay’s lack of a more perfect early education, however it may be regretted generally, teaches at least one profitable lesson; it teaches that in this country, one can scarcely be so poor, but that, if he will, he can acquire sufficient education to get through the world respectably.[5]

5. Education should promote equality

The coronavirus campaign has widened the inequality gap in so many areas, including access to education as young people living in poverty may be denied tools, such as the internet, necessary to continue with schooling in this time of social isolation. Lincoln’s words and actions remind us that our education system should fight inequality, not exacerbate it.

In a fragment of writing that dates to the mid-1850s, Lincoln wrote that unlike foreign lands, the American democratic system had “proposed to give all a chance; and we expected the weak to grow stronger, the ignorant, wiser; and all better, and happier together.”[6] He wanted to extend this education system to the formerly enslaved,

I would be glad for her to make a new constitution recognizing the Emancipation Proclamation… and while she is at it, I think it would not be objectionable for her to adopt some practical system by which the two races could gradually lift themselves out of their old relation to each other, and both come out better prepared for the new…Education for young blacks should be included in the plan…[7]

Lincoln knew that education and literacy, the withholding of which had long been a means of oppression for the slave-owning class, could be a powerful tool to promote equality. Today our country continues to be plagued by racism and inequality. It is imperative that we search for creative ways to promote a more equitable education system.

Lincoln, an avid reader, reading aloud to Tad

Whether parents, teachers, students, or concerned onlookers, we hope this school year is a success and that you remember Lincoln’s favorite biblical adage, “And this too shall pass away.” [8]

For more on Lincoln and Education see our article “A Universal Right for All—Lincoln and Education” by Zach Klitzman.


[1] This list relies heavily on our article of last year: Zach Klitzman, “A Universal Right for All—Lincoln and Education.” President Lincoln’s Cottage. Septmeber 4, 2019. https://www.lincolncottage.org/a-universal-right-for-all-lincoln-and-education/

[2] Roy P. Basler, ed. The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 1:8 (hereafter “CW”).

[3] CW 5: 288

[4] Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and the War Years, ed. Edward C. Goodman (Sterling Pubclishing Company , 2007), 313.

[5] CW 2:124.

[6] W2:222.

[7] CW 6:365.

[8] CW 3: 482

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