Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 4

Author: Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson as a Promoter of General Education

"Institutions," it has been said, "are the lengthening shadows of men." In a large sense this is true. Institutions, systems and governments find their first general expression in the words of a few men who work and toil for humanity. It is well, therefore, that at times we go back to the original declaration,—the springs from which have flowed the rivers that refresh and benefit mankind. The subject may not be a new one, yet the particular manifestation, or phase of it, in a community or nation, will be found to have originated in the mind and from the efforts and writings of man.

Whatever else may be said or thought of Thomas Jefferson, all agree that he was unique and strong in his personality, and, in history, he stands among the few "upon the mountain heights." It is, I think, agreed that he belonged to that small number, who in the great highway of life are far in advance of their age; who see some things clearly which are obscure to others that stand around them. It is more than far-sightedness; it is rather a spiritual possession; a deep intuition that takes hold of right by instinct and see States and systems as the artist sees the picture or the form before the brush has touched the canvas, or the marble has felt the chisel. The age rejects the vision because the masses have not the knowledge or faith to see it, but the day dawns at last—too late for the seer to participate in the action—when the people reach the point of view and then the world says, "He saw and expressed it a century or twenty centuries ago." This power is not the result of education; it is instinct in some great souls. Education aids in the expression of the thought; it builds around it a fortification of defense; but the time comes when the simple statement of the truth is all that is needed. It is accepted, not because it can be defended, but because the enlightened minds of earth see that it is right. I have made these introductory statements because what Jefferson said in reference to education are in the main common and accepted theories to-day.

It might well be expected that in speaking upon this topic much should be said about the efforts of Thomas Jefferson to secure legislation in his State in the interest of education. The education bill which he prepared and labored so hard and long to have adopted by the Virginia Legislature, is worthy of study and comment. Especially would it be pleasant and appropriate to speak of his splendid work in establishing and building that great institution of learning, the University of Virginia,—an institution which in its constitution, its form of organization, its curriculum, and its architecture, bears the imprint of his noble mind. One thinks of this university with profound admiration. Its service has been long and excellent; but when we think of the University of Virginia, great as its service has been in the usual work of the university, our minds instinctively recall its "honor system," which differentiates it from other great universities. To teach men honor, and to require them to organize for the defence and maintenance of honor in student life and conduct, is to grow men who will stand for the State, the observance of law, not as a matter of expediency or policy, but as the high and controlling duty of the citizen. Nothing in the development of this university could better exemplify the thought and character of its founder.

But it is not these works of Thomas Jefferson which come involuntarily to the mind when he is spoken of as a promoter of education that I wish to emphasize. Rather let me recall a few fundamental and unique principles which he believed in and advocated.

He believed profoundly in the education of all the children in the State, of rich and poor alike, in the fundamental or elementary courses of instruction at public expense. In his famous education bill the first provision was for elementary schools, free to the children of every citizen, where competent instruction was to be given in "reading, writing, common arithmetic, and general geography." We need not quarrel with the curriculum; that is a detail. The great thought underlying it and of vital interest, is expressed in two letters upon the subject. Writing to Mr. C. C. Blatchley, he said: "I look to the diffusion of light and education as the source most to be relied on for ameliorating the condition, promoting the virtue and advancing the happiness of man." And again, writing to James Madison, he said: "Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to; convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty."

The great general principle, the mighty underlying, foundation truth, is that in the general elementary education of all the people there will be found the way, and the only way, to virtue, happiness, security, and liberty. There are no conditions or provisos in this social law. Religion, race, conditions—material, social and political—do not lessen its importance, or vary its operation, or impose any conditions upon it. Will you have a happy, virtuous people, a free, a secure State? then educate all the people in the fundamental subjects of knowledge; instruct every child to read, that he may know what is going on in the world; instruct him in those other necessary branches of learning that he may keep his part in the world’s work going right. In the free public schools are the tap-roots of true citizenship.

Jefferson provided in his education bill for higher education—for colleges and university. Specialization was limited in his day as compared with our present conditions. Then higher education was for those who were to enter the learned professions and for the leisure classes. To-day we offer systematic and scientific education to all who are preparing for almost every department of life. But the general thought he expressed is still true and applicable. He said: "I do most anxiously wish to see the highest degree of education given to the highest degrees of genius."

If perfection of operation is so desirable and so much sought after in mechanics, what efforts are too great, what sacrifices too rich in effort or money, to develop perfection in the minds and hands of the men who are, and are always to be, the factors in the development, progress, civilization, and service of mankind! Colleges, universities, professional and technical schools are necessary for those who are to do the intellectual labor, the scientific and skilled work in the world’s great laboratories. Here in this upper sphere of education there are two thoughts of Jefferson that we may well consider. The first is method—and here we find the approved method exemplified in Jefferson’s way of doing things. Men of his type are not satisfied to take things at second hand which may be acquired from original sources. He urged the study of languages—of which he possessed a knowledge of four—that the thoughts of men worth the reading and study might be obtained in the very words in which the thoughts were expressed; deeming the words selected by the author important to a true understanding of the idea. He says: "To all this I add, that to read the Latin and Greek authors in their original is a sublime luxury; and I deem luxury in science at least as justifiable as in architecture, painting, gardening, or the other arts."

Writing to a friend in France, in later life, upon the subject of fitting one’s self for public life and especially for the duties of a legislator, he said, in substance: Go among the people, lounge upon their beds that you may see how hard they are; eat their food that you may be able, if possible, to put some meat in their kettle of vegetables.

In higher education, then, we should use, to the greatest degree possible, the method of original research. Let the student in engineering learn and establish himself in the laboratories and workshops where "things are done." Let the student of chemistry bend over fierce fires and the refining pot. Let the student of history learn some things from the men who are making history. Let the student of jurisprudence take his knowledge from jurists and judicial opinions. And let the student of the classics find in tombs and buried cities a knowledge of the ancients, and read his poetry and prose in the languages in which they were written.

The second thought in this higher realm is suggested in that proviso which Jefferson added to the second section of his bill. Colleges were to be within a day’s ride of every inhabitant, and a university in the State. Of course, these institutions were open to all who could provide for themselves and pay the tuition. But this strange man was always looking out for picked men to serve the State; not necessarily in public life, but in all those higher walks that make the higher civilization. And he believed that there was material for high and noble service among the poor. He would, therefore, have free scholarships in these colleges for the poor man’s son. But how was the selection to be made? What tests were to be applied in admitting to these free courses? The provision reads: "For the full education at the public expense of select subjects from among the poor who shall have exhibited at the elementary schools the most pronounced indication of aptness of judgment and correct disposition." Here is a tst, a standard for admission entirely overlooked in the present day. States and benevolent organizations of all kinds are establishing institutions for higher learning, and the only tests required are that the candidate for such privileges shall have a certain per centum of the knowledge taught in the secondary schools. "Aptness of judgment and correct disposition" are not considered in determining whether the riches of these educational advantages shall be showered without cost upon men. The result is, that in many cases young men are instructed in higher knowledge for a profession, or a calling, for which they have no natural fitness or qualifications; the real elements of success are not in them. We cannot prevent a man of wealth sending his son to an institution to spend years in preparation for a profession in which he can never succeed because nature made him for something else; but in giving free education, whether by the State or by voluntary organizations, this suggestion of Jefferson partakes of that wisdom which lives in worthy men who dare to say and dare to do the right things in all matters, even in benevolent and political action. The higher education bestowed upon those who have not the aptness of judgment and the correct disposition for its exercise and use, is more than a waste of time and effort. It unfits such men for the service they might render in humbler walks of life, makes them restless and unhappy, creates an unstable class in society, and, therefore, renders the State less secure,—the very opposite results which should follow a proper control of educational efforts.

The last thought is Jefferson’s reason for education—"the preservation of liberty." How these men loved liberty! They knew its value, for they paid the price of it. I like this thought which he expressed: "A government wherein the will of every one has a just influence . . . enjoys a precious degree of liberty." But the "will" of the individual is of little value unless there be a fair degree of intelligence among all the people, and liberty in its highest form can not be made prevalent for good without a general appreciation of its value. Spencer says truly: "The ability of a nation to hold its own against other nations depends on the skilled activity of its units. We see that on such knowledge may turn the nation’s fate."

And so Jefferson keeps constantly before us the thought, that, in the elementary education of all the people, and in the higher education of those who show indications of "aptness of judgment and correct disposition," is to be found happiness for the people, security and strength for the State, and the preservation of liberty.


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Chicago: Thomas Jefferson, "Jefferson as a Promoter of General Education," Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 4 in Thomas Jefferson, the Writings of Jefferson: Monticello Edition, Vol. 4 (Washington, D.C.: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904-1905), Pp.I-IX Original Sources, accessed June 19, 2024, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=97PBZ5SR6MRWSFZ.

MLA: Jefferson, Thomas. "Jefferson as a Promoter of General Education." Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 4, in Thomas Jefferson, the Writings of Jefferson: Monticello Edition, Vol. 4 (Washington, D.C.: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904-1905), Pp.I-IX, Original Sources. 19 Jun. 2024. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=97PBZ5SR6MRWSFZ.

Harvard: Jefferson, T, 'Jefferson as a Promoter of General Education' in Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 4. cited in , Thomas Jefferson, the Writings of Jefferson: Monticello Edition, Vol. 4 (Washington, D.C.: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904-1905), Pp.I-IX. Original Sources, retrieved 19 June 2024, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=97PBZ5SR6MRWSFZ.