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A Real Education



log house school
Although Lincoln received little formal education, he briefly attended school in
this crude log cabin located on the Old Cumberland Road in Kentucky.

Brian Burns
South Middle School, Arlington Heights

Abraham Lincoln was a totally self-educated man. Though his childhood education was very limited, he learned much from books. When he was young, his mother died from drinking milk from a cow that had eaten the poisonous snakeroot plant. His father left the cabin and Abe and came back with Lincoln's new mother who started his childhood education.

It was hard to find a good teacher, and good schools were rare on the frontier. Everyone who could read and write was asked to be a teacher. To repay the teachers, families gave a teacher as much extra food as they could spare, such as deer meat, ham, corn, animal skins, or produce because money was often unavailable. Lincoln's teachers were Andrew Crawford, Azel W. Dorsey, and a man known as Sweeney. There was no fixed school year, because students went to school whenever there was a teacher to teach them. Teachers used a whip to keep the students in order. If students misbehaved, they had to wear a dunce cap and sit in the corner for the day. Abe thought school was simple. He did his work at night because of chores during the afternoon, and he sat in front of the fireplace, where he would get his only light. He did his arithmetic on a fire shovel because paper was hard to get.

Abe first went to school in the winter of 1815-1816 when he was six years old. He was happy to walk the four long miles to school and always arrived at school early. School opened in the winter because there were not many chores to be done around the house. The school was a one-room log cabin with one teacher and students of all ages and sizes. There were small children and large husky farm boys. It was called blab school, because the teacher made the Students read out loud, so they would not mispronounce words. Students also recited their lessons out loud to the teacher and the rest of the class. Abraham went to school when he was 6, 7, 11, 13, and 15 years old. All the time he went to school did not add up to a year. Abe did, though, remember much in between his schooling. At age 21 he could read, write, do arithmetic, and cipher to the rule of three, which was as much as most teachers in Indiana could do.

Abraham Lincoln's sister taught him and encouraged him to write. When he got tired of doing arithmetic, he would write poems. Many years later he wrote about how hard it was to find a school teacher. If a straggler supposed to understand Latin happened to sojourn in the neighborhood, he was

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looked upon as a wizard. Since paper was hard to get, Abe sometimes wrote in the dust or snow. Abe had extremely good handwriting, so good in fact that neighbors would ask him to compose letters for them.

Abe received most of his education from the books he read. As he grew up, he became fascinated with books. He loved to read every minute of his spare time. When he went out to plow a field, he put a book under his shirt and read at the end of rows when the horses were resting. His best friend, Dennis Hanks, said, "I never saw Abe after he was 12, that he didn't have a book in his hand or in his pocket. It just didn't seem natural to see a guy read like that." Books were scarce in the backwoods, and each book he got was precious. The Lincolns did not have any books and Abe was forced to borrow. He was willing to walk miles to get a book that he might read over and over. Abe read everything he could get his hands on and once told his family, "My best friend is the man who will give me a book I haven't read." He read the Bible several times and other books such as Pilgrim's Progress and Aesop's Fables. His favorite book had a very long title: The Life of George Washington, With Curious Anecdotes, Equally Honorable To Himself and Exemplary To His Young Countrymen. He tucked the book into a corner of the loft. During one night, rain from a big storm stained the cover of the book. To pay for the damage, Abe spent three days harvesting corn for the farmer from whom he borrowed it. George Washington later became one of Lincoln's heroes. One time, Abe walked twenty miles to borrow a book about the United States. In fact, he loved reading so much, he even read a spelling book. He used school books such as Murray's English Reader and Pike's Arithmetic.

Abraham Lincoln's childhood education was poor, but that did not matter. With determination and his love for reading, he became one of the greatest presidents of all time. When he was young he stood in doorways and on tree stumps and imitated speakers. He had no idea that someday he would be speaking to not only a country, but the world. [From Michael Baron, Who Was Lincoln?; Keith Brandt, Abe Lincoln: The Young Years; Richard Kiegel, The Frontier Years of Abraham Lincoln; Larry Metzger, Abraham Lincoln; Earl Miers, Abe Lincoln in Peace and War; Russel Shorto, Abraham Lincoln To Preserve the Union; Rebecca Steoff, Abraham Lincoln.]

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ILLINOIS HISTORY / FEBRUARY 1995


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