At some point in the history of our modern society, humans developed a far-fetched notion that nature exists as a force contrary to human interest. It became something to overcome, control, and bend to our will in order to make way for bigger and better innovations. The advent of the 20th century brought steam power, mass production, rapid intercontinental travel, and numerous conflicts between cultures who had until then remained blissfully separate.
Henry Ford and Ransom Olds pioneered methods to increase production and profits in exchange for the individual identity of their workers. Fredrick Winslow Taylor invented the theory of "scientific management," a labor system which among other things espoused the idea that humans should behave, move, and think more mechanically. Societies stopped being defined by the integrity of individual citizens and became more and more mimetic of the machines they worked so hard to produce en masse.
With mechanical production at the cost of personal identity seemingly at the heart of all things in the early 1900s, Theodore Roosevelt Jr. serves as laudable example of a stubborn, self-made, organic man. His legacy is sometimes so comically diverse that it is fruitless to attempt an overview of his exploits. He is commonly regarded as the namesake for the original Lovie, the Teddy Bear. He is the only President to abdicate a high-power political post (Assistant Secretary of the Navy) in order to reenlist in the military as a fighting soldier, becoming part of the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War. He even won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for successfully negotiating the end of the Russo-Japanese War. That being said, this article is not about his lengthy and prestigious political career. This article is about who Theodore Roosevelet Jr. was and why he became the rough-and-tumble man we learn about in history books.
It is worth noting that he was not preordained to become a war hero, conservationist, cowboy, awarded author, or influential leader. Born with severe asthma, he suffered as a child with general physical weakness and fatigue, limiting his engagement with the world around him. Instead of resigning himself to his lot in life, he chose to mitigate his symptoms with what he later referred to as a "Strenuous Life." Over time, physical exertion in the form of running, hiking, swimming, and hunting became a form of therapy for him. With his family, he traveled the world at a young age (the Swiss Alps in 1869, a European tour in 1870, and Egypt in 1892), setting the stage for a lifelong love of cultural exchange and worldly citizenship.
To Roosevelt, strength of body was a indication of a deeper, more important strength of heart and mind. His father espoused in him the importance of "strength and courage with gentleness, tenderness, and great unselfishness" and an avoidance of "cruelty, idleness, cowardice, or untruthfulness." Above all else, bravery was the character trait Roosevelt believed all people should hold near and dear. Much later in his life, he described his obsession with its importance:
"I was nervous and timid. Yet from reading of the people I admired—ranging from the soldiers of Valley Forge and Morgan's riflemen, to the heroes of my favorite stories—and from hearing of the feats of my southern forefathers and kinsfolk and from knowing my father, I felt a great admiration for men who were fearless and who could hold their own in the world, and I had a great desire to be like them."
As if his political career was not busy enough, he decided later in his life to become a rancher in the Dakotas. Elk Horn, his ranch, was a site for Roosevelt to engage in physical and emotional therapy in the great outdoors, cultivate a sense of empathy towards Western Americans, and develop a general sense of the obligations of government to the natural world. While the career ranchers he interacted with were not particularly impressed with his trade skills (according to some accounts, he was especially bad at using a lasso), they were taken with his enthusiasm and his willingness to learn from his mistakes.
During his time in the West, Roosevelt even went so far as to become a sheriff's deputy. According to some accounts, he once stood guard over three fugitives he apprehended along the Little Missouri River for forty hours without sleep, keeping himself awake by reading Leo Tolstoy and a dime-store western one of the thieves had on his person.
Roosevelt is important to me as an educator for a few reasons. First, and most importantly, he is a living indication that effort (not skill, talent, privilege, wealth, or ability) is the true currency of a fulfilling life. From birth, Roosevelt was predisposed towards having a sickly, bedridden, indoor life riddled with limitations and restrictions. Through sheer force of will, he overcame his lot in life and rose to hold the highest office in our great nation. His rich and indefatigable character was a direct result of the trials he overcame. His metamorphosis from a struggling child into a gruff, no-nonsense, brave, gracious, and independent man resulted from nothing more than his choice to change himself for the better.
Second, the natural world can function as a source of physical therapy, emotional catharsis, intercultural understanding and exchange, and interconnectedness for us all. Throughout Roosevelt's life, every catastrophic event was mitigated to some degree by his interaction and exploration of the world around him. Despite accomplishing a truly staggering number of daunting tasks, his self-proclaimed greatest victory was the creation of Federal protection initiatives for the environment.
Roosevelt created 51 bird reserves, 4 game preserves, 5 National Parks, 18 National Monuments, 150 National Forests, and the United States Forest Service. He was also one of history's greatest proponents of the Boy Scouts of America and their push for self-reliance in even the youngest citizens of the United States. While the world around him took cues from the smokestacks, steam whistles, and conveyer belts that had become so ubiquitous, he styled himself after the stubborn bull-moose. His success as an conservationist is not a byproduct of his political career, it is the cause.
Last, Teddy Roosevelt is personally important to me because he represents the importance of morality and how it manifests in every aspect of our lives. Moral nations, moral communities, moral companies, and moral organizations are comprised first and foremost of moral people. It is my belief that self-reliance, responsibility, kindness, empathy, passion, and curiosity are all personal qualities that combine to create a larger, more powerful code of human ethics. I believe that we as parents and teachers are in a unique position to not just explain, but demonstrate the overarching power of being a good person.