To claim that anyone is America’s greatest teacher is very audacious. To make that claim about a man who has been dead for 172 years, and that virtually no one has ever heard of, is perhaps ludicrous.
But I believe it’s true, and here’s why – his students.
Experts might differ on what makes a great teacher but ultimately it’s about the students they taught. Did they learn, and more importantly, did they leave their mark in this world? If this is the standard to judge teachers, few would dispute that Waddell was America’s greatest.
Waddell’s students include: a President of the United States, two Vice-Presidents, three Secretaries of State, three Secretaries of War, one Assistant Secretary of War, one US Attorney-General, Ministers to France, Spain and Russia, one US Supreme Court Justice, eleven Governors, seven US Senators, thirty-two members of the US House of Representatives, twenty two judges, eight college presidents, seventeen editors of newspapers or authors, five members of the Confederate Congress, two bishops, three Brigadier-generals, and one authentic Christian martyr.
In the Presidential election of 1824, three of the five candidates were his students: Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun, and William Crawford of Georgia.
Although Waddell said he did not remember him, Jackson said that he had studied under Waddell, and his Vice-President, John C. Calhoun, certainly did for many years. Thus, from 1828-32, for the only time in history, both the President and Vice-President were from the same state, South Carolina, and both had been students of the same teacher, Dr. Waddell. (Jackson and Calhoun hated each other with a passion and Calhoun resigned as Jackson’s VP, but that is another story for another time.)
And the impact of Waddell’s students was as great in South Carolina as it was nationally. At one time, five South Carolina governors in a row had been his students.
Is this for real? Could one man have taught and produced such leaders – the answer is, yes, he did.
Waddell was born in Rowan County, North Carolina, in 1770 and graduated from Hampden-Sydney College. He became a Presbyterian minister and, consistent with his denomination’s emphasis on education, he started several schools affiliated with his churches. He began his ministry in the Lowcountry but as a strict Scots-Irish, he was deeply suspicious of Charleston’s ‘sinful’ ways and soon left for the upcountry.
His best known school was Willington Academy, founded in 1804 on the banks of the Savannah River in what is now McCormick County. Though most of his students were relatively poor boys of the backwoods, his fame attracted students from all over the region. He became known as ‘Cromwell of the Classroom’ and Willington Academy was called ‘Eaton in the woods’ after the elite school in England.
(Full disclosure: the village of Willington is my ancestral home and a number of my ancestors went to Willington Academy.)
Waddell believed in classical education and he was convinced that every student had the capacity to do extraordinary things. He demanded that every student memorize, translate and recite 250 lines of classical Greek or Latin – every night. The students helped teach each other and but also aggressively competed with each other to see who could memorize the most. George McDuffie, Governor of SC 1842-46, held the record of 2,212 lines – though he did it over a weekend.
Stop for a minute and think about this – every student, every night, 250 lines of Greek or Latin – and then look at the list of what he produced.
I’m not a professional educator, and I sure don’t know much classical Greek and Latin, but I do know this: we as human beings can achieve near superhuman feats when we are challenged and inspired.
In one sense, there was nothing special about Willington Academy. No one cared very much about where the students had come from, or even what we would call today their ‘disadvantaged background’. They were given a book, put in an environment that intensely fostered learning and they were led by a teacher that demanded stunning results – from everyone.
And he got it. His students changed the world.
Some would argue that it is a different world today than it was in the backwoods of upcountry South Carolina in the early 1800’s.
Yes, it is different – some ways good, some bad. However, the lesson of Dr. Waddell are eternal – demand and expect great things of people, and they can achieve them.
Our state desperately needs modern-day Dr. Waddells in the classrooms, and a generation of leaders such as his students.
We could have them both – if we demanded it. South Carolina did it once; we can do it again.