Public Education According to Thomas Jefferson

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If you’re like me, you’ve probably heard somewhere along the line how the Founding Fathers supported and encouraged public education. Such a concept is more than a rumor, as can be seen in Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia

But reading this document made me realize that Thomas Jefferson’s idea of public education is a far cry from the system we currently have. So how did this revered Founder envision public education?

Mission: Jefferson’s version of public education sought to instill the population with a general knowledge base, particularly focusing on the 3Rs:

“Another object of the revisal is, to diffuse knowledge more generally through the mass of the people. This bill proposes to lay off every country into small districts of five or six miles square, called hundreds and in each of them to establish a school for teaching, reading, writing, and arithmetic.”

Timeline: Publicly-funded education was only to last for a brief time period. Private funds were required if a student wanted to advance farther in his education:

“The tutor to be supported by the hundred, and every person in it entitled to send their children three years gratis, and as much longer as they please, paying for it.”

Funding Mechanism: Lest finances be an obstacle, Jefferson provided a limited number of public scholarships for poor, but gifted and talented boys to continue on beyond the three required years:

“These schools to be under a visitor who is annually to chuse the boy of best genius in the school, of those whose parents are too poor to give them further education, and to send him forward to one of the grammar schools…"

Curriculum: Lest you imagine these grammar schools to be comparable to the later elementary grades our students go through now, take a look at what they were studying:

“…the grammar schools, of which twenty are proposed to be erected in different parts of the country, for teaching Greek, Latin, geography, and the higher branches of numerical arithmetic.”

Values: Surprisingly, Jefferson does not seem to support the idea that public schools were to be secular in nature; rather, he actually embraced the teaching of morality and character on the grounds that it was for the students’ well-being:

“The first elements of morality too may be instilled into their minds; such as, when further developed as their judgments advance in strength, may teach them how to work out their own greatest happiness, by shewing them that it does not depend on the condition of life in which chance has placed them, but is always the result of a good conscience, good health, occupation, and freedom in all just pursuits.”

While we can smugly pat ourselves on the back over the fact that we give today’s students (boys and girls) 10 more years of free education than what Jefferson proposed, we must remember that length does not necessarily spell excellence. Judging from Jefferson’s writing, it seems like the children of his era received a far more rigorous mental and moral education than ours do today – all at much less public expense. Perhaps if our current education system was more in line with what Jefferson envisioned, our children would be enjoying a more individualized education plan promoting their happiness and growth:

“The general objects of this law are to provide an education adapted to the years, to the capacity, and the condition of every one, and directed to their freedom and happiness.”

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