Today, Noah Webster (1758 – 1843) may be among the least-known early Americans, but many of those familiar with him believe him to be one of the fathers of education in this country.
If you haven’t already guessed it, Noah Webster is the same man whose name is printed on the cover of the dictionary; he wrote it, and spent many long hours—and a great deal of his money—researching the etymology, uses, and definitions of each word in it. Webster’s work on the dictionary is extensive enough as it is, but he also worked a great deal toward improving childhood education in early America, and for that reason we look to him for this week’s Lessons in Leadership.
Lesson 1: Faith and Everyday Life are Fundamentally Connected
It may come as a surprise, but much of Webster’s work writing the dictionary stemmed from the Bible. I have heard it said that he believed because God communicated through the use of words (i.e. the Bible), it was absolutely essential for Christians to know precisely what those words meant. It will come as no surprise then that “[Webster’s] 1828 American Dictionary contained the greatest number of Biblical definitions given in any reference volume” (source), and the textbooks he wrote contained lessons based on Biblical principles.
To Webster, everyday life was to be grounded in Scripture, and his educational work reflected that fact.
Lesson 2: If a Public Policy or Practice Bothers You, Take Action
Webster was a prolific author and educator. He disliked the early American school system because it was based on a British education system driven by aristocracy. In keeping with the spirit of American freedom and equality that drove the Revolution, Webster worked to revolutionize education by providing a distinctly American approach to it.
He wrote the very first book ever published in America: A speller designed simply to teach children proper spelling and vocabulary. The book sold over 100 million copies throughout the years, and helped unify spelling and pronunciation in America.
Webster also influenced American education through the structure of his speller and other textbooks. Webster believed that children needed to be educated at a level corresponding to their age and mental development, starting with something simple (like learning the alphabet) and progressing to more complex tasks (like reading words and writing sentences). When other education systems tried to teach students Greek and Latin before English grammar, Webster rejected those ideas, instead teaching basic English first. Today Webster’s educational philosophy may seem intuitive, but at the time, it was revolutionary.
Webster saw something he didn’t like, and took action to change it. That’s a valuable lesson in leadership.
Lesson 3: Good Leaders Should not be Driven by Public Recognition
Noah Webster published his first dictionary at the age of 42, and continued working on revised editions until his death. During his life, Webster was best known for his spellers, not his dictionaries. Through the years since his death, however, his name has become synonymous with a book that is considered the authority on the English language. Webster didn’t publish dictionaries for fame or fortune; he published them because he believed they were important.
Many more lessons could be extracted from Webster’s life: His value for education and learning; his dedication in producing as comprehensive a dictionary as he could—a mental journey that took him to multiple countries and through many languages in search of the origins and definitions of various words; or simply his perseverance and determination.
Noah Webster’s life can teach us many lessons in leadership, but at the core, these stand out: His commitment to Christian faith in everyday life, his willingness to work very hard to make the world around him a better place, and his dedication to the things he believed in.