Next U.S. President Needs to be a Great Teacher

“Effective teaching is the very essence of leadership.”

Gordon B. Hinckley

I would be curious which president the historians consider the greatest teacher—not by any secular position or title, but by capacity. As I consider the presidential biographies I have read, the unique and undervalued gift to teach seems to have been reserved for but a few.

Abraham Lincoln was a teacher in both word and deed.

He used true stories, fablelincolns, images, and allegories not to just entertain, but more often than not, to teach correct principles. His teaching prowess was complemented by his ability to be patient, discern, and then respond with calm judgment. Lincoln was genuine, virtuous, and simple. His simplicity and plain speaking also reflected the characteristics of a great teacher. Yet, in his day, the New York Herald accused him of being a “fourth rate lecturer, who [didn’t] speak good grammar.”[1]

Honestly, I prefer this over a scripted driven, teleprompter reading politician today. I prefer a man or woman who can see the real problems in our nation and offer counsel and direction, rather than a candidate who worries about memorizing the names of the leaders of Cambodia, Kyrgyzstan, and Zimbabwe before an interview with a shallow journalist.

Boyd K. Packer (1924-2015), a superb teacher in his day said, “Excellence does not call attention to itself.”[2] This is another characteristic of a great teacher but it is tested with the impulses of modern media.

Lincoln saw the domestic troubles and judgments of God upon his own countrymen and went to work. Good teachers work. Lincoln was not scripted, nor quick to say things people wanted to hear. Nor did Lincoln have a readied statement for every issue before the close of the day. Good teachers think issues through and avoid flashy and quick decisions. Again, bringing me back to great teachers exemplifying calm judgment and discernment.

Lincoln cared about people and late in his life he saw the virtue of expanding the opportunity and improving everyone’s situation. Joseph Smith, the first president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a contemporary of Lincoln said, “All the minds and spirits that God ever sent into the world are susceptible of enlargement.”[3] Great teachers recognize this and try to encourage people to live according to true principles so they may obtain heightened intellectual, mental, and spiritual powers. Which in turn help them in their physical and temporal conditions and situations.

Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of independence said of another signer, John Hart, that he was a “plain, honest, well meaning [man] with but little education, but with good sense and virtue enough to pursue the true interests of his country.”[4] Capable teachers don’t talk tough, perpetuating a war of words to maintain a current of strife and to feed their self-absorption. Adept teachers speak wisely and judiciously about the real problems, usually stemming from the hearts and minds of the citizenry.

Great teachers and leaders reverence history and seek to help others understand important lessons of the past. David McCullough has been trying to make this argument for a few decades. He expressed one time in my hearing his concern that history is fading in the minds and hearts of the people. The general populace he declared, “Is concerned too much about the future.” Emphasizing that it is “history that teaches us how to behave.” He presented that “history is an exploration of character.”[5] The words of this fine man and exemplary author need to reach the ears, hearts and minds of all Americans. In his own genuine, simple way, McCullough suggested where this exploration of character can begin or be reignited. “Bring back the dinner table, bring back dinner talk—bring back dinner!”[6]

Which brings me to my last point on what may help us recognize great teachers. They will be exemplary fathers (or mothers, we could have a first woman president in 2016). They will be successful teachers in the home. Their efforts and time in the home with their children should be evident.

So this presidential cycle I hope people start looking for a great teacher, not a great debater or public speaker. We should seek for a teacher, not  a candidate who looks good on T.V. or sounds good on the radio.

Past presidents and current candidates must be fairly scrutinized and judged. Lincoln is only one of many individuals, who needs to be explored. Why? John Hay one of secretaries observed and drew this conclusion: “There is no man in the country, so wise so gentle and so firm. I believe the hand of God placed him where he is.”[7] Lincoln came to the national stage at the right time.

For 70 years this country ignored slavery and it cost us dearly. In the Constitutional Convention George Mason, while fervently attacking the institution of slavery, prophesied that “Providence punishes national sins by national calamities.”[8] The calamities are all about us. What destroying behaviors and attitudes are making us susceptible to the judgments of Almighty God? What national sins are we ignoring?

We have many bewildering problems before us today. I believe the next president of the United States will need to be a great teacher. This could be a discussion for the dinner table, as presidential politics will be in full exposure for the next 14 months.

I suggest effective teaching inspires people to change attitudes and behaviors which are contrary to prosperity and happiness. Great teaching can lead to renewal—something Americans desperately needed in Lincoln’s day, and something Americans desperately need today.

[1] See opening page of Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin.

[2] “The Spirit of the Tabernacle,” April 2007. (Boyd K. Packer). See LDS.org.

[3] Teachings of the Presidents: Joseph Smith, 210.

[4] Visions of Freedom, 96 (DeGroote and Fox).

[5] Author attended a David Reads Event in Utah, where David McCullough was the main speaker. Taken from personal notes.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Team of Rivals, 545, (Doris Kearns Goodwin).

[8] Young Patriots, 157 (Charles Cerami).

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