Abraham Lincoln’s Letter to His Son’s Teacher and the Making of the Nigerian National Values (Part I)

I first read Abraham Lincoln’s ‘Letter to His Son’s Teacher’ in Junior Secondary School. The letter had such a fascinating impression on me, so much so that I memorised every word of it at the time. I relished its poetic quality and didactic contents. Young as I was then, I could recognise good poetry whenever I saw and read one. The aesthetics and the morals of the letter have stayed with me over the years. I urge all teachers to introduce their students to this letter, if they have not already done so. There is no need to explain what it means to them. Let them just read it for the fun of it. Young minds have a way of assimilating facts on their own and in their own way. The letter itself is a timeless and universal masterpiece etched on the tablet of human history and memory by one of the best minds that ever lived. Its timeless lessons continue to reverberate throughout the ages. In this piece, however, I am interested in discussing the letter as part of the basis for the Nigerian national values. In other words, if we want to articulate our values as a nation or as a people, we can distill the contents of Lincoln’s letter and combine them with other sources we hope to draw the values from.

The events in our country over the years have shown that we are in dire need of aligning and realigning our values. First, it has to be pointed out that we as a people are not in any way lacking in values. The values of our peoples are rooted in their rich oral tradition, as can be gleaned from folktales, sagas, proverbs, songs and riddles, among others. Unfortunately, these traditions are dying out in the wake of postcolonial modernity, as they are not being preserved. Some argnorant bigots on the pulpit might even see these traditions as fetish and ungodly. They thus raise a generation of Christians who look down on their tradition and its values. But everyone knows that folktales have didactic values, and that they begin by capturing the impressionable minds of children, then hold on to them till the end of the story when the storyteller asks the children what lessons they have learnt from the story.

For instance, the ubiquitous story in which tortoise falls from the sky and breaks into pieces and has to be stitched together, teaches the child a lesson in communal relationship, the value of community, the need to live and let others live as well. Children who are raised with this story will grow up to eschew greed and selfishness in their dealings with other members of society. When they become leaders, they will know that there are consequences for embezzling the communal wealth and resources. Many of these traditional tales also teach obedience to parents, respect for elders, leadership by example and the protection of the weak and defenceless members of society. The prevalence of evil in society today despite the existence of postcolonial modern/moral institutions is a clear indication of how the abandonment of our oral tradition and its values has hurt the moral fabric of society. But then again, I am not advocating that society should be returned to its pristine precolonial state. That would be an unrealistic project. I believe that we can take the best from what the modern world has to offer and combine it with our rich cultural values to come up with a workable set of values to guide us as people in a globalised world. I also believe that Abraham Lincoln’s Letter to His Son’s Teacher is one of the modern documents that can be consulted in that regard.

Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States of America. He became President in 1861. He was assassinated in 1865. He was an inspiring figure because though he encountered many failures in life, he did not give up. His name is often associated with the Emancipation Proclamation, a document that set free all black slaves in America towards the end of the American Civil War. Though Lincoln was a great lawyer and writer, it is difficult to link the authorship of this particular letter to him, except through popular belief and assignation. It is generally and popularly asserted that Mr Lincoln wrote the letter to his son’s teacher on the son’s first day at school. We will take this information as well as the authorship of the letter as legend. Our main concern in this essay is how the contents of the letter can be drafted to form part of our values as a nation based on my interpretations.

There are many versions of the letter but there are certain core contents that are common to all the versions. Thus, I am going to be discussing these core contents. It should be noted that the letter is addressed to the teacher to serve as a guide on how the child is to be trained or taught in school. At first one could wonder at the arrogance of Lincoln, a parent, for trying to lecture a teacher on how to teach a child. But upon further reflection, it is realised that both the parents and teachers are supposed to work together to ensure the proper education of children. The practice of parents dumping their children in schools for the teachers to look after should be discouraged. Children should be taught by both the parents and teachers. Parents are to teach the children at home while the teachers teach them at school. While teachers may teach metaphors to the children at school, parents can help teach the children manners at home. Parents are to supply the necessary information about their children to the teachers so that teachers could know how to deal with the children in school. The task of educating the child is one that should involve all the stakeholders. Part of our oral tradition and philosophy sees the child as the property of the community; meaning that the child is not only owned by the parents, but he or she is also collectively owned by the community.

Lincoln’s letter emphasises learning. Continuous learning should form part of our national values. The idea that learning ends after graduation should completely be discountenanced. We live at a time in human history when knowledge is constantly in a state of flux. One needs to keep learning to stay relevant in one’s business or field of study. Life itself is a school from which one never graduates until death. Learning should be like that. Continuous learning could take the form of periodical skills upgrade or a lifetime of voracious reading to gain knowledge, or both. We need a Reading Revolution (RR) in Nigeria. I am not saying this because the reading revolution will boost the boom of the publishing industry which will in turn make writers and publishers rich. The truth is that no nation has ever risen above its economic and political challenges without an enlightened and psychologically empowered population. The followership that reads is an informed followership, who will know how to choose the right leaders and hold the leadership accountable. A well-read followership is also easy to govern. Innovative thinking and creation usually follow the creative exercise of the brain through reading. Reading, above all, can also be undertaken for its own sake; that is, for the pleasure of it. There is a part of the letter where Lincoln urges the teacher to teach the child the wonder of books. Reading gives us a better perspective on life and issues of life.

The opening paragraph of the letter emphasises the importance of relative thinking, which is quite necessary in a world like ours. Thinking in absolute terms is dangerous because, in most cases, the person who does so risks falling into the trap of hasty generalisation. Examples of relative thinking in the letter can be seen in expressions such as ‘all men are not just’, ‘for every scoundrel there is a hero’, ‘for every enemy, there is a friend’ and ‘for every selfish politician, there is a dedicated leader’. Relativist thinking allows us to make allowance for people’s weaknesses, knowing that no one is perfect. The person thought to be the worst might have some good traits in him or her, and the person seen to be a saint might have some undesirable traits. Armed with this knowledge, the individual will know how to relate well with other members of society.

Lincoln equally illustrates the value of hard work and contentment in his famous letter. This is seen where he states, ‘teach him that a dollar earned is of far more value than five dollars found’. Jesus Christ also teaches this virtue in Luke 3:14 which states in parts, ‘Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be contented with your wages’. These words discourage sharp practices at work, like bribery and corruption, extortion and the accumulation of ill-gotten wealth.   

The average Nigerian’s attitude towards winning and losing is very deplorable, especially in politics. Perhaps, this explains why former President Goodluck Jonathan was hailed around the world for his sportsmanship after losing his second term presidential bid. He is a lesson that President Trump has refused to learn. Nigerians need to inculcate the right attitudes in the area of winning and losing. This virtue is stated in Lincoln’s letter thus: ‘Teach him to learn to lose and also to enjoy winning’. Both winning and losing are arts which should be well practised and mastered. One ought to be magnanimous when winning and gracious when losing. Winning at all cost should be discouraged. One cannot possibly succeed at everything every time. I believe that with the right kind of attitude towards winning and losing, people will lead happier lives and society will be more peaceful and harmonious.

  It does not also help how people regard those who tried their hands at something and failed. That someone fails an examination, for instance, does not make the person a failure for life. Failing at something should not define an individual. A failure is a person who does not try at all, not the person who keeps trying and never gives up trying.The fear of failure and the stigma associated with it has made many to take desperate measures to ensure their success in whatever they do. This usually leads to unimaginable consequences. Perhaps, if people began to see failing as part of life and its processes, there would be more creative innovations around us and society would be all the better for it.  WATCH OUT FOR PART II. 

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