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Jefferson and Education
By Jennings L. Wagoner Jr.
The University of North Carolina PressCopyright © 2004 University of North Carolina Press
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PrologueThomas Jefferson was clear about the way in which he wished to be remembered by posterity. In sketching the design for his tombstone in his last days, Jefferson noted that he wanted only three things as his epitaph: "Author of the Declaration of American Independence, Of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia." Political freedom, religious freedom, and intellectual freedom; these were the touchstones of Jefferson's life and work. These he hoped would be remembered as his most important and enduring contributions to his countrymen.
The University of Virginia, termed by Jefferson as the "last service I can render my country" and the "last of my mortal cares," was indeed a remarkable achievement. It stands today as a lasting tribute to Jefferson's faith in the power of education and his belief that education was of central importance in insuring the very survival of the new nation whose birth he had so boldly proclaimed in July of 1776. However, the beauty and power of "Mr. Jefferson's University," perhaps surpassed only by the eloquence of his Declaration, are often allowed to overshadow Jefferson's equally earnest commitment to the general education of the mass of the population. While struggling to obtain funds to complete the University of Virginia, Jefferson also professed that, if forced to choose between establishing a system of general education and finishing the university, "I would rather abandon the last, because it is safer to have a whole people respectably enlightened, than a few in a high state of science [knowledge], and the many in ignorance." European nations, he added, had provided ample demonstration that the latter alternative "is the most dangerous state in which a nation can be." In a similar vein he had noted a few years earlier: "A system of general instruction, which shall reach every description of our citizens, from the richest to the poorest, as it was the earliest, so will it be the latest, of all the public concerns which I shall permit myself to take an interest."
As will be discussed in the pages that follow, Jefferson's efforts to advance educational opportunities for both the rank and file and the most promising of the citizenry were at times compromised by pragmatic political strategies deemed necessary to advance other, equally pressing, ideals. But there is no gainsaying his fundamental conviction that, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." Moreover, Jefferson consistently maintained that in a republican-democratic society, the education of the common people must be provided for. As he put the matter in 1879: "Whenever people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government. Whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights."
But why did Thomas Jefferson, born into the ranks of the Virginia gentry, embrace such views? What motivated him to work for over forty years to urge his native state to adopt a plan that would provide for publicly supported education for all citizens as well as a powerful state university that would offer education at the highest level to the best and brightest of each generation? And why was Jefferson, esteemed architect of the founding principles on which this nation was built, unable in the end to see his vision completed in full? How was it that Jefferson was able to secure the founding of the University of Virginia as the capstone of a hierarchical educational system but yet unable to gain sufficient support for putting in place publicly supported elementary and secondary schools as the cornerstones of the system? To search out the answers to these questions is to understand the contours of Jefferson's labors on behalf of, and his commitment to, education in the new American nation.
Excerpted from Jefferson and Education by Jennings L. Wagoner Jr. Copyright © 2004 by University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
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