Monday, April 7, 2014

Thomas Jefferson on Education













Thomas Jefferson was a firm believer in the value of education, particularly in its role in both strengthening and preserving the American republic.  He felt that his crowning achievement was as founder and “Father of the University of Virginia” (from the epitaph that he directed to be inscribed on his gravestone).  Jefferson “had faith in the ‘common man’ and his ability to elect wise and virtuous leaders if that man were educated to do so.”[1]  Jefferson wrote the Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, the Bill for Establishing a Public Library, and the Bill for Establishment of a System of Public Education, among others.[2]  He stated:

“I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom, and happiness.”[3]  

No other founder labored as long, or as diligently, during his lifetime to establish a regular school system accessible to all citizens and youth.  He wrote:

“I have indeed two great measures at heart, without which no republic can maintain itself in strength: 1. That of general education, to enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom. 2. To divide every county into hundreds, of such size that all the children of each will be within reach of a central school in it.”[4] 

For Jefferson, the purpose of education is:

“To form the statesmen, legislators and judges, on whom public prosperity and individual happiness are so much to depend; To expound the principles and structure of government, ... and a sound spirit of legislation, which ... shall leave us free to do whatever does not violate the equal rights of another; … to develop the reasoning faculties of our youth, enlarge their minds, cultivate their morals, and instill into them precepts of virtue and order ...” [5]

With these thoughts and convictions in his heart, Jefferson’s last great dream was to found a public university in Virginia.  Beginning with his first concept in 1800, and after the investment of much of his personal time, money and labor, and lobbying to the state legislature with the valuable assistance of several influential friends, the University of Virginia was chartered by the Commonwealth of Virginia on January 25, 1819, and opened for classes in March 1825.

That same year, Jefferson’s long-time friend and collaborator, James Madison, wrote to a mutual friend concerning Jefferson, the University, and the diffusion of knowledge:

“Your old friend, Mr. Jefferson, still lives, and will close his illustrious career by bequeathing to his Country a magnificent Institute for the advancement and diffusion of knowledge; which is the only guardian of true liberty, the great cause to which his life has been devoted.”[6]

May we be equally as devoted to the education of our youth and young adults, that we may preserve liberty and happiness, and "enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom."


[1] Meg Brulatour, Background for the State of Education in New England: Post-Revolutionary War to Mid-19th Century (Essay, Virginia Commonwealth University).
[2] Steven Tozer, Paul C. Violas, Guy B. Senes, School and Society: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives., (McGraw-Hill, New York, 1995), pp. 30-31.
[3] Andrew Lipscomb and Albert Bergh, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 20 Volumes, (Washington, D.C.: 1903-1904), 5:396 (Memorial Edition, cited as “ME”).
[4] Id., Thomas Jefferson to John Tyler, 1810, ME 12:393.
[5] Thomas Jefferson, Report for the Commissioners for the University of Virginia, August 4, 1818 (Special Collections Department, University of Virginia Library).
[6] James Madison to George Thomson, June 30, 1825, The Writings of James Madison, 4 Volumes (J.B. Lippincott & Co., Philadelphia, 1865) 3:492.

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