Thomas Jefferson’s Theory of Education
By Andrew Calvert (Grade 11)
Jack Kerouac, when speaking on the highest level of individual freedom he had known in his life wrote:
“Because the only people for me were the mad ones, the ones who were mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones you never hear yawn or say commonplace things, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous Roman candles, exploding like spiders across the stars.”
If ever these attributes were embodied in one man, it was in the person, mind, and soul of Thomas Jefferson. He was the scientist, lawyer, author, musician, student, and philosopher-king who wrote the United States of America into existence and who defined what it was to be an American citizen for generations unborn. He was to be America’s lighthouse of wisdom, vanguard of thought and science, and navigator of philosophical waters no man had ever ventured out upon. Jefferson took the mere thought and conjecture of European Enlightenment thinkers and built an American empire upon it. Though many ideals Jefferson held in esteem he did not personally accomplish, he defined what he hoped the future course of America would be. This definition began with education. Thomas Jefferson’s theory of education formed a deeply interwoven epistemology centered around his views on religion, politics, and the essence of human nature. For Jefferson, his educational theory also defined what it meant to possess natural human rights and the drive to impart those rights to all Americans became the sole purpose of the last half of Jefferson’s life.
Thomas Jefferson was born on April 2, 1743 in Albermarle County, Virginia, to Peter Jefferson and Jane Rudolph. While Jefferson was not born to the wealthiest of families; he was still from a rather distinguished line of descent. His father, Peter, was a self-educated intellectual and the first source of knowledge for a man who would remain a student until his last moments on Earth. After his father’s death in 1757, when Jefferson was only fourteen, Thomas was sent to receive a classical education in Greek and Roman literature and grammar under Dr. James Maury. Maury would give Jefferson the key to unlock prior millennia of thought and philosophical contributions and further the yearning Jefferson had for knowledge.
By the time Thomas Jefferson decided to attend the College of William and Mary at seventeen, he was extraordinarily proficient in nearly all academic disciplines. B.L. Rayner remarked on Jefferson’s intellect saying that:
“His course was not marked by any of those eccentricities which often presage the rise of extraordinary purpose, but … by that bold spirit of inquiry, and thirst for knowledge, which are the surer prognostics of future greatness.”
It was during the time that he attended William and Mary that Thomas Jefferson received the three most profound influences on his life and thought. These came in the persons of Dr. William Small, Governor Francis Fauquier, and George Wythe. This intellectual triumvirate often hosted dinners at the Governor’s house where Jefferson once remarked:
“I have heard more good sense, more rational and philosophical conversations [at the Governor’s dinners], than in all my life besides.”
The crux of Jefferson’s philosophy was formed from these men. Jefferson was endless in his praise of Small, Wythe, and Fauquier. He attributed his “great good fortune” and “what probably fixed all the destinies of my life” to William Small. About Wythe, Jefferson wrote, “No man ever left behind him a character more venerated than George Wythe”, and Jefferson also proclaimed “[Wythe was] honor of his own, and model of future times.” It is apparent then, that to understand the philosophy of Thomas Jefferson, which is the intellectual font of his educational theory, the prior philosophy of his mentors and their predecessors must be known.
Small and Wythe no doubt reflected the predominant philosophy of the 18th century, which can be generally described as the Enlightenment. In the wake of the Protestant Reformation, growing religious skepticism coincided with watershed advances in science and mathematics that led certain thinkers to question whether man was entirely dependent on God, where mankind obtained true knowledge, and even the very existence of the Christian God.
Thomas Jefferson based his philosophy on the belief that Christianity was not a perfect source of knowledge or even the only source of truth. Jefferson averred David Hume and Francis Bacon among others in his skepticism of the dogmatic Christian Church. To Jefferson and other Enlightenment intellectuals, Christianity, among other religions, had caused such repeated injuries to mankind that it was not fit to be the basis of civil government. Enlightenment thinkers, following the teachings of Aristotle and subsequent philosophers, sought true knowledge from observation, experimentation, and sense experience since the Church, the only other traditional authority, could not be trusted. This influence on the physical and empirical world led to the proliferation of a materialist worldview that placed scientific knowledge and governmental or political philosophy at the forefront of human understanding.
However, the humanistic influence on Jefferson does not justify classifying Jefferson as agnostic or atheistic. Jefferson does not deny the existence of God or of some other supernatural Deity. That being said, Jefferson’s skepticism does echo Enlightenment rationale by limiting his Gospel reading to that of Jesus’ direct quotations alone. He saw the followers of Jesus Christ and the subsequent Catholic Church as the source of corruption within Christianity, not Christ himself, whom Jefferson viewed simply as a great moral teacher. Jefferson once very bluntly wrote that Christ’s writings were “as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill” when compared to the writings of the Apostles. While Jefferson did convey an impersonal tone in his discussion of God, it is equally apparent that Jefferson did not go to the extreme of denouncing religion, but denounced the corrupting human influence upon it. Jefferson then, seems to be acting mostly politically when he described himself as “rational Christian” since Jefferson’s personal beliefs do not appear to align with the Protestant Evangelicalism that was prevalent in the United States’ population at the time, as it is today.
So, after rejecting Christian doctrine and the Church as the sole source of human knowledge, Jefferson had to offer another in its place. The foundation of Jefferson’s educational theory can be seen in one sentence taken from a letter to a younger pupil of his:
“In morality, read Epictetus, Xenophantis Memorabilia, Plato’s Socratic dialogues, Cicero’s philosophies, Antonius, and Seneca.”
On a superficial level, it appears that Thomas Jefferson is only suggesting sophisticated classics to his student, but his recommendations have much deeper meaning than what is apparent on the surface. All of the philosophers, emperors, and thinkers Jefferson listed belong to the tradition of Stoicism, the belief that a truly educated and intellectual person would not experience the degrading emotions of human life that so often ensnare and entangle mankind, keeping man from reaching the true potential of his life. Among these philosophers are also a number of early materialists and empiricists, who were the origin of the humanistic philosophy that it appears Jefferson is upholding. Jefferson also lists Plato’s Socratic dialogues that teach that Knowledge, above all else, is the prime virtue, that Knowledge precedes all human action, and that Knowledge is the foundation of all the good a man can do in his life.
When Jefferson’s suggestion of these philosophers is viewed in the context of offering them as moral teachers, his educational theory begins to take its shape. Jefferson was, at heart, saying that in order to live a good life, a person must be educated thoroughly so that he may avoid life’s most harmful experiences, and so that he may have intimate knowledge of “the good” in order that he may perform it. Proper education, then, must begin with those men that first articulated those ideas: the Greek and Roman philosophers. Jefferson also saw this form of enlightened or educated man, as the individual upon which society must be built. Dumas Malone, the chief biographer of Thomas Jefferson’s life described Jefferson’s belief when he stated:
“He was convinced that only an enlightened society was capable of genuine self-government and that no ignorant people could maintain their God-given freedom.”
It is at this junction that Thomas Jefferson tied proper education to the realization and preservation of natural rights. Jefferson defined these rights as “derived from the laws of nature and not as the gift of the Chief Magistrate [George III]”. According to Colombia University historian Adrienne Koch, Jefferson’s views on natural rights could be described as:
“…the living individual creature who issues from the hand of the Maker with the right to live, to work, to realize and enjoy the fruits of his work, to govern himself by choosing his own type of government by law, which is to operate on the soil which he has made his own…”
With Jefferson’s well known usage of phrases like “inalienable rights”, it is easy to assume Jefferson believes that the natural rights of man are present from his first breath until his last. However, this is not a complete analysis of Jefferson’s thought. When Jefferson stated that government should be built upon the enlightened, he tied his belief in government as a natural right to his belief in government being the right of the educated. Therefore, government is a natural, God-given right of the enlightened, for only the enlightened are capable of exercising their natural rights justly. This is not an elitist view, but one grounded upon honest logic. An uneducated populace would be unable to govern themselves, or in Jefferson’s own words:
“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”
The question of the chronology of natural rights is not, then, a clear cut one and the argument could be reasonably made that Thomas Jefferson sees natural rights as only being actualized in the thoroughly enlightened individual.
In lieu of this, Jefferson offered two core principles of education, according to former Princeton University president William G. Bowen. Those are that “...educational theory was inseparable from political theory” and that “freedom in all of its forms—political freedom, religious freedom, and intellectual freedom—was essential to both a sound educational system and a well-functioning ‘Republican polity.’”
To pull the different strands of Jefferson’s thoughts together before proceeding any further, Jefferson’s view was that education, which is paramount in securing man’s natural rights, is inseparable from political education because the role of government is the preservation of those natural rights secured by the enlightened, but also that education must be separate and free from hegemony by one religion, since that system can be schismatic and destructive to society.
It was with these ideals in mind that Jefferson expounded his educational theory from his own mind into the world around him, and it was this venture that brought Jefferson from the prime of his life through his last half century. Jefferson’s quest began on June 18, 1779 with the drafting of Jefferson’s Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge. The Bill was a preventative measure on Jefferson’s part to ensure that the freedoms the fledgling nation was fighting for would not be quickly lost or forgotten. Even though it did not pass, Jefferson’s Bill was an early outline of the system of education he would advocate throughout the remainder of his life. The first level, or grade, of schooling would consist of Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, and the reading of ancient Greco-Roman works to serve as historical education. This curriculum was replaced in a second grade by Languages, Mathematics, and Philosophy, with Philosophy being defined as Ideology (which Jefferson associated with the French definition more closely associated with Science than with Metaphysics), Ethics, the Law of Nature and Nations (Political Philosophy), Government, and Political Economy. The third, or professional grade, consisted of Theology, Law, Medicine, Pharmacy, Surgery, Architecture, Military and Naval Projectiles, Technical Philosophy (more closely associated with Metaphysics), Rural Economy, and the Fine Arts.
In his Bill, Jefferson also outlined a hierarchical structure to education, with all students, male or female, being admitted without charge for three years to the public schools within their ward, and the highest achieving echelon of those students being transferred to the university or college level with others being discontinued from the school system, in hopes that, at the end of what we would refer to as secondary school, only the most elite intellectuals of the state would be admitted to the College of William and Mary.
During Thomas Jefferson’s presidency, his ideology took another step towards fruition. This began with the founding of West Point in 1802, but Jefferson sought much more than a mere military academy. He strove to establish a state university that offered education to the highest intellectuals of the American populace, in order that they might serve the remaining population through sound government and advancement of knowledge. The Albermarle Academy, which Jefferson saw as the next tangible opportunity to further his educational theory was a beginning step, but was not broad enough in its reach to accomplish Jefferson’s vision. Not accepting defeat, Jefferson petitioned for legislation that would create lower tier public schools in Albermarle County which would then feed into the newly christened Central College (a rejuvenated Albermarle Academy). This legislation, which would have placed the financial burden on taxpaying citizens currently over-encumbered by a severe drought, was not passed. The proposition would be revisited again and finally passed on January 25, 1819. This was the first major step towards what would become known as the University of Virginia.
In 1819, Thomas Jefferson’s life’s work was accomplished. The University of Virginia obtained a charter from the state legislature that affixed it atop the state’s hierarchy of public schools and proclaimed Thomas Jefferson as its father. The immediate ramifications were important, but the philosophical implications were truly profound. Thomas Jefferson had, in his seventy sixth year of life, achieved the realization of the sum of nearly two and a half millennia of thought. He had obtained for the United States of America a universally accessible system of thorough public education. It is critically important to remember what forces drove Jefferson to an almost lifelong pursuit that culminated in the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
Thomas Jefferson had, in his view, obtained the salvation of his country. Jefferson had given the gift of thorough, right-minded, free-thinking education to Virginians that would allow them to claim their God-given natural rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Jefferson had redeemed his constituents and countless generations of Americans by raising them to the ability to truly own their rights, something that only the aristocratic classes of the Old World had previously obtained. Jefferson now offered true human citizenship and identity to the citizens of the United States.
Thomas Jefferson’s theory of education, then, is one that was layered with strata after strata of philosophical thought and reasoning that, when viewed through Jefferson’s epistemological lenses, made the founding of UVA absolutely imperative. In offering the mission of UVA and his educational system as a whole, Jefferson was quoted as saying:
“This institution [the University of Virginia] will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor [afraid to] tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”
Jefferson’s theory of education, at its very core, was not merely the reading the Greco-Roman classics, or being well-rounded in thought. Jefferson’s theory of education was the process by which men could come to “…hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Near the end of his life, Thomas Jefferson, in his own Autobiography, asked himself, “Is my Country the Better for my Having Lived at All?” The conclusion that must be drawn is that Thomas Jefferson not only lived, but he burned through his life like a supernova echoing throughout the cavernous voids of the heavens, never ceasing, but resonating throughout the Universe in a myriad of forms. Jefferson’s thought is similarly omnipresent in modern America, ranging in influence from a drizzle of nostalgic remembrance, to an intellectual deluge; the kind of gully-washing thunderstorm all too common in the dog days of a Virginia summer.
Addis, Cameron. Jefferson's Vision for Education, 1760-1845. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, 2003.
Gish, Dustin, and Daniel Klinghard. Resistance To Tyrants, Obedience To God. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013.
Kerouac, Jack. On The Road. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1959.
Koch, Adrienne. The Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1943.
Malone, Dumas. The Sage of Monticello. Boston, MA: Little Brown and Company, 1892.
National Intelligencer. 8 August 1776.
Okeshott, Michael. "Two Treatises on Government." Two Treatises on Government: By John Locke 5 (1962): 100. Accessed November 11, 2014. http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/3020511?uid=2134&uid=3739656&uid=2129&uid=2484590587&uid=2&uid=70&uid=3&uid=2484590577&uid=3739256&uid=60&sid=21105174660713.
Rayner, B.L. Sketches of the Life, Writings, and Opinions of Thomas Jefferson. New York, NY: A. Francis and W. Boardman, 1832.
Wagoner, Jennings. Jefferson and Education. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
"The Declaration of Independence." Ushistory.org. Independence Hall Association, n.d. Web. 08 Nov. 2014.
 Kerouac, Jack. On The Road. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1959.
 Rayner, B.L. Sketches of the Life, Writings, and Opinions of Thomas Jefferson. New York, NY: A. Francis and W. Boardman, 1832. Page 19.
 Rayner, Page 21,
 Rayner, Page 21-22.
 Rayner, Page 22.
 Rayner, Page 22.
 Wagoner, Jennings. Jefferson and Education. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. Page 22.
 Rayner, Page 23.
 Rayner, Page 24.
 Gish, Dustin, and Daniel Klinghard. Resistance To Tyrants, Obedience To God. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013. Page 23.
 Gish, Klinghard, Page 23.
 Koch, Page 39.
 Koch, Adrienne. The Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1943. Page 23.
 Koch, Page 25.
 Koch, Page 35.
 Koch, Page 7.
 Koch, Page 7.
 Koch, Page 7.
 Jefferson most likely viewed “the good” very differently than Plato, whom this phrase is referencing, did.
 Malone, Dumas. The Sage of Monticello. Boston, MA: Little Brown and Company, 1892. Page 15.
 Malone, Page 15.
 Koch, Page 135.
 Koch, Page 136.
 Okeshott, Michael. "Two Treatises on Government." Two Treatises on Government: By John Locke 5 (1962): 100. Accessed November 11, 2014. http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/3020511?uid=2134&uid=3739656&uid=2129&uid=2484590587&uid=2&uid=70&uid=3&uid=2484590577&uid=3739256&uid=60&sid=21105174660713.
 Wagoner, Page 19.
 Wagoner, Page 9.
 Wagoner, Page 9.
 "The Declaration of Independence." Ushistory.org. Independence Hall Association, n.d. Web. 08 Nov. 2014.
 Wagoner, Page 34.
 Wagoner, Page 35.
 These grades did not directly correspond to age as in modern schools (i.e. 6th grade for 12 year olds, 7th grade for 13 year olds) but grades are only graduated from after content mastery had been achieved.
 Wagoner, Page 35.
 Koch, Page 68.
 Koch, Page 58.
 Malone, Page 243.
 A term used by Jefferson referring to a system of urban organization that was never implemented (square townships of approximately 100 square miles each).
 Wagoner, Page 38.
 Addis, Cameron. Jefferson's Vision for Education, 1760-1845. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, 2003. Page 25.
 Malone, Page 242.
 Malone, Page 247.
 Malone, Page 21.
 Malone, Page 21.
 read hereafter as UVA.
 Wagoner, Page 9.
 The National Intelligencer. 8 August 1776.
 Koch, Page 189.