DALLAS — AS WE contemplate the dismal state of education in the United States at the beginning of 1991, there could be no better time to celebrate those figures in our national past who best exemplify the importance of literacy and learning. Toward that end, Douglas L. Wilson, a professor of English at Knox College in Illinois, has written ''What Jefferson and Lincoln Read,'' a wonderful essay in the January issue of The Atlantic.
In a well-crafted historical analysis, Mr. Wilson compares the scholarly backgrounds of two of the best-known Americans, Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, and Abraham Lincoln, 16th. Though in the regressive and fractious categorizations of our own day, both men might come to be seen as similar in that they were both ''Anglos,'' more telling is the fact that they sprang from totally different backgrounds.
Jefferson was a Virginia aristocrat who enjoyed a marvelous formal education. Before his personal library became the core of the Library of Congress, his pen had already set to paper the why and the wherefore of American independence. As Professor Wilson notes, Jefferson's mind has become so much a part of our national lore that President John Kennedy, in greeting an assembly of Nobel laureates, told them that ''never had so much accumulated knowledge been present in the White House, with the possible exception of when Jefferson dined here alone.''
Abraham Lincoln was a Kentucky backwoodsman who climbed from obscurity to the pinnacle of American political life. Though never a true scholar like Jefferson, he fairly inhaled the Bible, schoolbooks and legal texts in his formative years. As he grew older, he became devoted to Shakespeare's plays and Robert Burns' poetry. And given his love of current events, it should not be surprising that he was an inveterate reader of newspapers. What he learned, he learned well.
Jefferson was a Founding Father. Lincoln saved the Union. But their attraction for subsequent generations of Americans also lies in their uncommon wisdom, stirringly stated. Beyond that, it was Lincoln's very ascent from Nothing into Something that, in particular, captures the American imagination, and we would do well to identify that which permitted him to climb as he did.
Professor Wilson does that for us. Lincoln, like Jefferson, possessed a burning desire for the wisdom imparted by books. ''They appear to have been equally disciplined and equally determined to achieve their objectives through reading and study.''
To listen to the gurus of today's education establishment as they argue that money alone will solve our nation's educational problems, you'd think Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln were irrelevant to the debate. Hardly. These great men continue to live as beacons of hope for every child in this country.
We live in a different time, to be sure. Neither Jefferson nor Lincoln had to worry about ducking bullets on his way to and from school. The daily temptation of crack was not part of their lives. Their fathers did not abandon them to their own devices. Both men benefited greatly from the legacy of a strong moral and ethical anchor, which well served them during trying times.
Nonetheless, both Jefferson in his privilege and Lincoln in his social struggle teach posterity that the road to distinction lies in a strong work ethic as it applies to study. Most of us know too many examples of poor kids who made good, through diligent study, to pretend that Lincoln in particular is not a relevant role model for today's youth. One has only to remember him reading books by candlelight and making notes on boards (when there was no paper to be found) to question the modern notion that fancy computers and state-of-the-art schools are the sine qua non of learning.
A photograph of a Lincoln document accompanies Professor Wilson's brilliant essay. In it, the future president responds to a correspondent who had written him for advice about how to become a lawyer.
Lincoln advises the writer to select a list of texts and ''work, work, work.'' What he meant, of course, was ''study, study, study.'' A century and a quarter after Appomattox and his death shortly afterward, Lincoln, if heeded, may once again save the Union.