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Jefferson's Principles and their Impact on Education
Jefferson's radical beliefs in the inherent moral and developmental capacities of humans, and in their capacities to take part to participatory democracy, in turn reinforced his enduring commitment to an education that would be accessible to all. Jefferson was well aware that democracy could only work properly when the people were both virtuous and enlightened.
From these notions that people were naturally virtuous but not naturally enlightened, but that enlightenment was necessary for democracy, it followed that the society had a vested interest in investing in education to provide enlightenment.
In a letter to the Welsh born philosopher Richard Price dated January 8, 1789, Jefferson observed that "wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their government."
Such well informed or enlightened people could be relied on, "whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice," to set the matters at hand "to rights."
Education, then, was to play the critical role of informing and enlightening the people.
Jefferson would make this argument more completely in his "Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge," which he proposed as part of his efforts to revise Virginia's laws in the late 1770s and early 1780s. At the heart of the bill, which he wrote in 1779 for presentation to the Virginia legislation, was an unprecedented proposal for public schools.
In the preliminary statement for the Bill, Jefferson noted that, "it is believed that the most effectual means of preventing" the slippage into tyranny that has repeatedly occurred "even under the best forms" of government would be "to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large."
This goal of illuminating the minds of the people at large spoke to society's vested interest in a basic education for all. Yet Jefferson also noted society's vested interest in supporting more advanced education for "those person[s], whom nature hath endowed with genius and virtue" and who "should be rendered by liberal education worthy to receive, and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens."
It was these persons who would be trusted to ensure that the "laws are best, and are best administered."
Since widespread "indigence" meant that most potentially qualified persons could not afford their own educations, Jefferson considered it "better that [they] should be sought for and educated at the common expense of all, than that the happiness of all should be confided to the weak or wicked."
In short, education for the citizenry would serve, in Jefferson's radical world-view, as the best defense against tyranny and the surest proponent of democracy.
Jefferson initially envisioned his "Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge" to be part of a public education program that would also include a revision of the charter of the College of William and Mary, together with a bill for the creation of a public library system in Virginia.
He believed that these synthesized measures in combination would create a better informed and better educated citizenry upon which a solid democracy could rest.
Jefferson's Principles and Ideals Regarding Education
The following is a summary of the principles of Jefferson's innovations on education. Jefferson intended that free elementary schools were to be provided to all citizens. Free education of a more advanced nature would be provided to a select group of poor boys, in a process that would take place over several years, through grammar schools that would also, simultaneously, cater to the well-to-do who would, however, pay for this service. Finally, a university education, funded by public taxes, would be provided again for a select few who would, consequently go on to use their education in order to contribute to the state. The university would be implemented in a way that would resonate with Jefferson's ideals, quite different in many ways to the system that was then extant; it would accord to more genuine standards of education and would not only accommodate a select group of poor students but would also accommodate those who could afford to pay6.
Jefferson was a utilitarian. His avowed purpose when it came to education was to teach "all branches of science useful to us, and at this day." 7. Interestingly, for instance, he thought geology to be non-beneficial unless it contained some useful metal that could be produced from it for the nation's productivity. In this way, Jefferson was truly one of America's founding fathers: he epitomized American pragmatism. Over and again, in different ways he stated that: "The main objects of all science are the freedom and happiness of man" 8 "Knowledge is power, knowledge is safety... knowledge is happiness."9
From Jefferson's writings, it was clear that he regarded educations as the most certain means for promoting human happiness, freedom, and democracy, and in this sense he has made a lasting contribution to the American education system and, as he legitimately pointed out, to the country as a whole.
Response to Jefferson's Proposals
At the time when Jefferson composed the Bill in the late 1770s, public schools were non-existent in Virginia.
Moreover, across much of America, higher education was the preserve of private colleges that promoted a largely ecclesiastical curricula.
In such a context, Jefferson's ideas for a more humanistic liberal, publicly supported education were regarded as extremely radical.
Even more unacceptable was his suggestion in line with his general commitment to the separation of church and state for college curricula with less pronounced religious overtones and underpinnings and greater focus on neglected subjects such as civil history, political economy, physics, mathematics, anatomy, medicine, pharmacy, surgery, law, and fine arts.
Following the proposal, the President of Trinity College which would later become Duke University, condemned Jefferson as an "atheistic monster" and warned Methodists to avoid the newly founded University of Carolina.
The Trinity/Duke president also denounced Jefferson's University of Virginia as a "bold enterprise and a deistic daring of enormous proportions."
Yet, Jefferson's thinking on public education went well beyond his convictions regarding the need for a well educated citizenry as the basis of a sound republicanism. For example, he also advanced ideas about the educational subjects that would be necessary for responsible citizenry and for an enjoyable and well rounded life.
He believed that history would be the most important topic for learning what was required for functioning as a responsible citizen
-- a wise argument that Americans would do well to consider even now. His "Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge" also proposed reading, writing, and common arithmetic as core subjects for the curricula of all the proposed primary schools in Virginia.
Moreover, Jefferson's thinking about education for responsible citizenry and a more fulfilling life even extended into the practices that ought to be avoided. In a letter to Nathaniel Burwell dated March 14, 1818, Jefferson complained that: "A great obstacle to good education is the inordinate passion prevalent for novels, and the time lost in that reading which should be instructively employed."
He further derided the passion for novels as a "poison [that] infects the mind, & #8230; destroys its tone, and revolts it against wholesome reading."
Novels would, it seem, ultimately have deleterious effects on democracy since they cause "reason and fact, plain and unadorned" to be are "rejected."
Jefferson -- the Enlightenment Figure
Jefferson's radical democratic perspective also apparently reinforced his lifelong desire to educate himself and others about the physical world, and about the true nature of the relationship between humans and their physical environment in America. It has been noted of Jefferson that, despite "the political tempests which raged around him, he never ceased to live the life of an ardent lover of the world of living things."
Elsewhere it has been observed that "Jefferson's scientific interests persisted throughout his long career as governor of Virginia, ambassador to France, Secretary of State, Vice President of the United States, and President."
Indeed, aside from the expected letters discussing the major political issues of his day, Jefferson's vast volume of correspondences is filled with numerous exchanges with leading men of science.
Jefferson is also said to have been "interested in all useful branches of science" -- a fact which, when coupled with his "very broad" conception of utility, meant that "few lines of research that had developed in his day failed to receive some attention from this tireless man."
Jefferson was also an indefatigable botanist.
He had at least one animal species and an entire plant genus named after him: Megalonyx jeffersoni (1822), an extinct species of giant land sloth, and Jeffersonia (1792), a genus of American wildflowers.
The giant sloth was named after him because he had produced earlier descriptions of the creation, while the naming of the wildflower genus honored the fact that "in botany and zoology the information of this gentleman…[continue]
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