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

By national values, I refer to a set of principles or ideals expected of the individual in a given society. National values are mostly those moral principles that guide a nation or a people. It would be difficult for any society to make significant progress over a period of time without operating on a set of strict boundaries regarding personal and collective behaviour and conduct. Values are the bedrock of any society, and without them, a nation and her people are likely to flounder like a ship without a captain. Values are rules that guide our work ethics, personal and interpersonal relationships, private and public conduct, attitude towards the less privileged and even our response to disaster and loss.

There are many sources from which our values as a people can be drawn. There are religious sources like the Bible and the Koran. There are also cultural sources like our rich oral tradition. In this essay, my focus is on Abraham Lincoln’s Letter to His Son’s Teacher as a good source of values which a nation like Nigeria can draw from. In the first part of the essay, I discussed a number of ideals stated in Lincoln’s letter which could constitute our national values. They include continuous learning, hard work, contentment and the right attitude towards winning and losing. In this second part of the essay, I intend to discuss some of the other ideals listed in Lincoln’s letter. I encourage everyone to make an effort to re/read Lincoln’s letter. It is a good-read any time, any day.

Steer Him away from Envy if You Can

Envy and jealousy are very dangerous vices that can ruin relationships and destroy societies. The two terms have a range of definitions, but I will attempt to define them as they apply to my discourse. The word ‘envy’ can be a noun or a verb. As a noun, envy can be defined as a resentful desire of something possessed by another. It is the act of hating someone for what they have apparently because that possession is out of the reach of the hater. As a verb, envy means to feel displeasure or hatred towards someone because of the person’s good success or good fortune. Defined this way, envy and jealousy can be synonymous, as jealousy may be defined as a feeling of resentment towards someone for a perceived advantage or superiority.

 Envy or jealousy is a very destructive emotion; only genuine love can cure it. It can be love for humanity as a whole; it can also be love for one’s own country. In our relationship with friends, family, colleagues and loved ones, we must watch out for the enmity that springs from envy or jealousy. It is also important to, in the course of raising children, instill in them the spirit of healthy competition. I believe that it is insult to self for one to compete with others. The best person to compete with is yourself because no matter what the self-effacement experts would want you to believe, you are really better than the best out there. Thus, you can surpass and surprise yourself if you internalise your competition; always striving to be a better you in all areas of life. This is what I encourage my students to do all the time: compete with yourself!

Competing with others is likely to lead to a feeling of envy or jealousy especially if your competitors tend to or appear to do better than you do. This might lead to feelings of insecurity, self-loathing and passive aggression. Eventually, these feelings result in unimaginable consequences. We read in the news most of the time how friends have poisoned friends because they are more successful in life, how colleagues gang up against colleagues because they are more successful and productive at work. Envy and jealousy are among the most irrational emotions that have ever been observed in humans. This is so because it is difficult to rationalise why one hates another for what they cannot have themselves.

 An instance of envy or jealousy in literature is a 1959 novel by John Knowles entitled A Separate Peace, seen especially in the relationship between Gene Forrester and Phineas (Finny).Gene Forrester is envious of his friend’s athletic abilities; he causes Phineas life-long injury by subtly shaking the branch of a tall tree on which they stand in preparation for a jump. Phineas falls and breaks his leg, an incident that ends his athletic career. Beware of envy and jealousy! Watch your relationships closely for the signs of envy. Run without looking back.

A nation or a country where people love one another and also engage in healthy competition is a nation without unnecessary personal and collective tragedies. In this nation, people see the success of others as their own success, and the failures of others as their own failures. After all, it is one humanity; what affects one, affects all. For, as John Donne puts it, ‘For whom the bell tolls/It tolls for thee’.

Teach Him It is Far More Honourable to Fail than to Cheat

Cheating, whether during examinations or competitions, is endemic in this country, and it is time we stopped it. The best way to discourage cheating is through value reorientation. It goes back to how we view competitions and their outcome in terms of how the winners and the losers are perceived and how they in turn perceive themselves. Abraham Lincoln says that it is far more honourable to fail than to cheat. This means that what is important is not necessarily whether one passes or fails, wins or loses. What matters is how the rules of the process were obeyed, or whether they were obeyed at all. This is what should be used in judging the real winners of a competition. The winner of any competition is one who followed the rules to the letter. It is always interesting in sports when, years after the competition, the winner is stripped of the medal if he or she fails the drug test. Thus, in the end, integrity always triumphs, character always rejoices.

Teach Him to Have Faith in His Own Ideas, Even if Everyone Tells Him They Are Wrong

One of the hazards I have had to deal with as a growing academic is the belittling of my ideas by people who should know better. But I have always known that when people belittle your ideas, it speaks of their insecurities rather than your weaknesses. Ideas should usually be modified, altered, developed and nurtured; not belittled. Belittling the ideas of the child is very destructive. It has killed many talents, dreams and aspirations. It dampens the creative spirit in the child or youth. Abraham Lincoln knew this and this explains why he urged the teacher to teach the son to always have faith in his own ideas and that he should not listen to those who try to belittle his ideas. The statement means that even if the whole world tells the child that his ideas are wrong, he should not believe them. Ideas come from God, and by God I mean the creative force that operates in the universe. Ideas usually come raw and require nurturing. What then happens when mentors and authority figures look down on these ideas? The child gets discouraged often times from pursuing them. Then these dreams die off. Thank God I read Abraham Lincoln’s letter earlier in life. The letter helped me to face the bullies of young people’s ideas.

Adults and authority figures should pay attention to ensure that that they do not, consciously or unconsciously, kill the creative talents and ideas in children and young people. Even when their ideas sound ‘childish’, there are many better and subtle ways of helping these children instead of belittling their ideas. Most adults can be threatened by emerging ideas, thus prompting their resistance to such ideas. At other times, new ideas tend to question what some adults had already known and internalised. This often sets off the alarm system! But if we do not question old and existing ideas, how will new ones emerge? Imagine if Luther did not nail his 95 theses on the Church door in Wittenberg. It is possible that the Protestant movement and the Reformation would have been delayed or might never have occurred. If Aristotle did not disagree with his teacher on the latter’s theorisations about literature, perhaps we would not have literature as a discipline today. Life is all about asking questions and getting answers. So please keep those questions coming!  

 Teach Him to be Gentle with Gentle People, and Tough with Tough People

This lesson is usually well illustrated in spy movies, where the protagonist leaves home as a gentle, loving and caring husband and Dad, only to become a monster fighter, killer and survivor in the field. The child should be trained to be a gentleman and a soldier at the same time. He should use his strength to defend the weak against the strong. If he has a voice, he should use it to speak for the voiceless. Not many words needed there.


19th November 1863: Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States of America, making his famous ‘Gettysburg Address’ speech at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery during the American Civil War. Original Artwork: Painting by Fletcher C Ransom (Photo by Library Of Congress/Getty Images)

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