Donald Trump, discipline and history

Donald Trump, discipline and history Tony Schwartz and President Donald Trump.

In the middle decades of the last century the National Geographic – then a magazine well worth reading – carried in the back pages a section of small ads for, among other things, elite schools.

A feature of these were the ads for Military Academies. These were nothing to do with the US Army. They were private schools, largely for the wealthy, which offered to the parents of troublesome, boisterous boys who were not progressing academically the prospect of good grades, self control and personal-esteem. They were designed to make real men of wimps.

In the education offered by these schools to youths between 12 and 18 were emphasised self-discipline and a knowledge of America’s great past, and also a sense of integrity.

When Donald Trump’s parents discovered that, aged 13, he had been making secret trips into Manhattan they packed him off to the New York Military Academy, 60 miles deep in the country.

This was a well-known institution, founded in 1889. The school was strict: it set great store by the ‘Cadet Honour Code’ it adopted from West Point (the US Army’s Saint-Cyr): “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal or tolerate those who do.”

Though a Presbyterian, Trump’s first university-level education was provided by the Jesuit-run Fordham University. But the Jesuits could do little with him. He later switched to a college that offered real-estate studies. Despite that Military Academy, he was not drafted in the Vietnam War, nor was he in the Reserve Officer Training Corps at college – a group held in deep suspicion by liberal students at my university.

What puzzles me about Trump’s education is that it seems not to have left much mark on his mind. He certainly admires the US Army and its generals, but in much the same way as baseball fans admire the best players in their team.

But from the New York Military Academy Trump seems to have gained little sense of personal discipline – the sort of demeanour one sees in his present Chief of Staff, the steely General John Kelly.

Nor, to the amazement of many, does he seem to have absorbed even the most basic facts about US history as known to every school child. Of course, to take an interest in history requires one to be interested in the experiences of other people, even other nations. For such an extremely self-centred person as Trump this seems to be impossible.

But a lack of knowledge, or even interest in history, is certainly strange in a US President. As we all know, most politicos, of whatever colour, in whatever culture, are history geeks, as the Americans say.

Jack Kennedy, for instance, not only constantly read history books, he even wrote one (albeit with the assistance of Ted Sorensen). This was the once widely read best-seller Profiles in Courage, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1957.

Without entering into the controversy over exactly how much of the book is Kennedy’s and how much Sorensen’s, these essays on leaders who stood in defiance over matters of conscience against their parties and their supporters remains a still relevant book for anyone in public life. It admires a standard of behaviour.


But Trump, too, has managed a bestseller in The Art of the Deal. But whereas Kennedy aimed at a conscience-driven stance, the ‘art of the deal’ extols a destructive model of life and commerce. This really was a ‘ghosted’ book, being completely written by journalist Tony Schwartz, in the writing of which Trump had no role.

Yet before he became President, Trump claimed it was his greatest achievement. It was his favourite book “next to the Bible”.

Schwartz, a graduate in American studies, and author of What Really Matters: Searching for Wisdom in America, predicted this month that Trump will resign before the end of the year, rather than go to jail.

So it seems that in Trump’s case the New York Military Academy was a failure, leaving him ill-educated. The school itself declined when ideas about education changed. It closed, only to be reopened by a group of Chinese investors. Now there is a nation which certainly believes in the virtues of discipline and historical knowledge.