What Good Can Possibly Come From an Uneducable Boy?

Thomas would never amount to anything and was uneducable. That was the conclusion of his teachers, and increasingly, it was the opinion of his parents. The young man, despite being born to privilege and growing up in a home that valued education, appeared to have no ability to learn.

The problem was dyslexia, although it wasn’t really understood very well in those days. Thomas had such a bad case of it that he was utterly incapable of reading for the first twelve years of his life. All of his education came from his mother and elder sisters reading to him. Only in his 13th year was he able to haltingly, imperfectly begin to read, but he had by no means mastered the discipline. For the rest of his life, he would find reading very, very difficult.

Thomas’ father was frustrated and embarrassed by the boy’s inability to grasp even the most basic of reading skills. Finally, he decided that if his son could not be a scholar, he could at least be a gentleman. To that end, he set about training Thomas in social graces. This was something Thomas was able to learn. It gave him confidence among people that had heretofore eluded him.

Although Thomas would always struggle with reading, he had one quality that helped overcome that challenge: fierce determination. He would not accept the judgment of society that he would never be an educated man. He worked harder than those around him, and despite all the odds, he not only completed grade school but even dared to dream of college.

Could such a goal be even remotely possible for this uneducable mental lightweight? You will have already guessed that it was. He was admitted to the College of New Jersey, where he won the respect of classmates and faculty alike for his performance in the college’s debating society.

Although a college degree would seem to put an end to any concern about his intellectual abilities, Thomas wasn’t done yet. He went on to attend the University of Virginia School of Law and earned admission to the Georgia Bar and started a law practice in Atlanta.

Curiously, the fellow who excelled so well in debates found the practice of law unfulfilling. It was the more intellectually oriented fields of legal history and jurisprudence that piqued the interest of this “uneducable” young man. He abandoned the practice of law after less than a year and entered the doctoral program at Johns Hopkins University. He earned a Ph.D., writing Congressional Government: A Study in American Politics.

One can only imagine the surprise — and delight — of Thomas’ father, who had given up on the hope of his son becoming an educated man. With the title “Doctor,” Thomas set out to share his intellect with others. He taught at Bryn Mawr College, Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, and returned to his alma mater New Jersey College — recently renamed as Princeton University — as the Chair of Jurisprudence and Political Economy. Thomas’ father even lived long enough to see his son become the university’s president.

With such an impressive resume, Thomas could have sat back and lived out the rest of his life in relative comfort, knowing he had defied the odds and thumbed his nose at the naysayers. He wasn’t quite finished surprising people, though.

His interest in political science grew to be something more than academic and theoretical. His writings and speeches on political matters drew the attention of the New Jersey Democratic Party, which was desperate to find someone to break their streak of losing the past five gubernatorial elections. Thomas became their nominee for Governor of New Jersey. He won that election easily, thereby putting a nail in the coffin of all of the “experts” who said he’d never amount to anything.

Woodrow Wilson
President Woodrow Wilson

Remember that fierce determination of his? Well, it wouldn’t allow him to settle, even for the governorship. It propelled him on to set his sights on an even loftier goal — an objective that would have seemed utterly unimaginable to those who had written him off as beyond any hope of making anything of himself. He left that reputation behind him, even as he stopped using his first name. Say what you will about the man, no one can claim that Thomas Woodrow Wilson — the only President with a doctoral degree — was a mental lightweight.

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