Thomas Jefferson and Education

By Son H. Mai


Thomas Jefferson's theories on education focused on the natural rights of man. He believed that education is a crucial element for a republic to thrive, just as an informed population was necessary in order to ensure self-government and to produce competent leaders. Although he never provided a detailed explanation of his concept of education, Jefferson maintained that knowledge and happiness are related: a man with superior intelligence and education can achieve a greater level of happiness than one with lower intelligence and education. Furthermore, he observed, "a man who is lacking the faculty of reason does not seem capable of any happiness." Jefferson considered this inequality of intellectual abilities to be one of nature's greatest mysteries. Education, according to Jefferson, had two components: subject matter, which is the knowledge necessary to obtain a level of happiness, and subject method, which is the way the knowledge is obtained. Jefferson argued that the greater command a person has in subject knowledge and method, the greater the intelligence he will achieve, which will correlate to a higher attainment of happiness (Heslep 76-84).

Formal education, according to Jefferson, consisted of three levels: elementary; secondary, which he referred to as "petty universities"; and university. Jefferson proposed in his General Education Bills of 1779 and 1817 that every county in Virginia should provide an elementary school and that future citizens should be expected to have an elementary level education. An elementary school curriculum would include arithmetic, history, geography, reading, and grammar.

A secondary education, Jefferson thought, should be available only to those who could either afford it, or were intelligent enough to be awarded a scholarship by the state. Students who could not continue to secondary schools - he referred to these children as "rubbish" in his Notes of Virginia - were expected to pursue a vocation: girls were expected to learn homemaking from their mothers and boys were to learn a trade from their fathers or through an apprenticeship. Jefferson recognized that a nation must have both professionals and skilled workers in order to be successful. Given a basic elementary education, such workers and homemakers, with vocational training would be able to inform themselves about important issues through newspapers and the community.

Jefferson proposed that there should be twenty secondary schools in Virginia. These schools would be selective in nature, and would teach English grammar, classical and modern languages, especially French, which he accepted as the "language of general intercourse among nations, and which as a depository of human science. . . is unsurpassed by any other language, living or dead." One of the most dedicated proponents of enlightenment and its ideals, he also proposed that geography, advanced math and plane geometry, surveying,, and navigation be included in the secondary curriculum. The sciences, Jefferson declared, are "more important in a republic than in any other government."

In the realm of higher education, Jefferson had three proposals: to recognize the curriculum at the College of William and Mary in a more secular manner, to establish a state university in Virginia, and to create a national university. Prior to Jefferson's proposal for reform at the College of William and Mary, the staff was under ecclesiastical direction and control by the clergy of the Anglican Church. Not surprisingly, the faculty stressed theology as the school's primary focus. The college also had a missionary program to teach Native American boys reading, writing, vulgar arithmetic, and the Christian religion. Jefferson planned to change the College's emphasis from religious to academic while expanding the faculty from six to eight by adding a professor of law and one of medicine. He also sought to change the College's Native American program from a missionary-orientation towards one centered on anthropology. Such direction, Jefferson declared, would permit the investigation of "[indigenous] laws, customs, religions, traditions, and more particularly [. . .] languages, constructing grammars thereof [to be compiled] and preserved . . ." Although Jefferson's ideas were initially rejected as being too radical, the College of William and Mary gradually adopted Jefferson's recommendations and implemented them over a forty-year period, creating in the end Jefferson's dream of an "academic village."

Nevertheless, following his return from France in 1789, Thomas Jefferson appeared to have lost interest in trying to reorganize the College of William and Mary. Instead, in 1796, Jefferson sent his proposal to President George Washington for the construction of a national university in the new federal capital.

When the Virginia Legislature approved the proposal in 1798, it offered to donate some of its shares in the Potomac River Company to fund a university in the District of Columbia. This laid the foundations for The George Washington University.

Although his financial situation was bleak for most of his life, in 1818 Jefferson contributed a thousand dollars - an enormous sum at the time - to fund the University of Virginia. In constructing the campus, Jefferson meticulously oversaw every single detail pertaining to the development of the university. Jefferson bought the land and surveyed it himself. Jefferson planned the University's curriculum, organization, admissions and graduation standards. He designed the building and supervised the construction. Jefferson personally selected the books that became the university library's initial holding, which included 409 classical works, 305 books onmodern history, 175 on religion, 160 on pathology, and 118 on philosophy an literature. He even drafted the library's circulation policies himself!

In conclusion, Thomas Jefferson's educational proposals reflected his ideas that democracy could be fostered through an educational system with high standards. Further reading on this topic can be found in Thomas Jefferson and the Development of American Public Education, by James Bryant Conant, Thomas Jefferson's Views of Public Education by John Cleaves Henderson, Thomas Jefferson and Education by Robert D. Heslep, and The Educational Work of Thomas Jefferson by Roy John Honeywell.