You probably know that Thomas Jefferson was a founding father, the drafter of the Declaration of Independence, and the third president of the United States. However, did you know Jefferson also had a great impact on education? In this lesson, we will take a look at how his views impacted American education.
Meet Thomas Jefferson
You probably know that Thomas Jefferson was a founding father, the drafter of the Declaration of Independence, and the third president of the United States. However, did you know Jefferson also had a great impact on education? In this lesson, we will take a look at how his views impacted American education.Thomas Jefferson – the name probably brings an image to your mind. Jefferson is one of the most famous men in American history.
He drafted the Declaration of Independence and served as the third president of the United States. He is often quoted and usually admired. His face is on the nickel and the two-dollar bill.
In short, Thomas Jefferson is a big deal. He’s an important man.He was born on April 13, 1743, and lived until July 4, 1826. He served as president of the United States from 1801 until 1809.
He was the governor of Virginia, a lawyer, an inventor, and a planter. He authored numerous works, most of which are focused on expressing his views of how to strengthen the American government and to put the power in the hands of the people.Entire college courses are devoted to understanding Thomas Jefferson as a man, a philosopher, and a statesman.
The purpose of this video is not to unpack all of those intricate details. The purpose of this video is to highlight Jefferson’s views on public education. Most people do not know that Jefferson had strong views on the topic, but some credit Jefferson as being a pioneer in the field. Let’s take a look at some of the most important aspects of Jefferson’s views.
Thomas Jefferson’s views on education were in many ways provocative for his time period. To be clear, these views were at least provocative enough that he was never very successful at shaping legislation regarding education.
Of course, the reasons behind this unsuccessful endeavor are complicated and beyond the scope of this lesson. Just because he wasn’t successful in passing legislation regarding education, doesn’t mean his views have not had a profound impact on school governance.If we were attempting to briefly summarize Jefferson’s views on education, it would suffice to say that his views on education mirrored his views on the role of government in the United States. Now, let’s unpack that a little.
Many of Jefferson’s views on education were best explained in two particular pieces of work: one drafted in his early career and one drafted after his retirement from public service. In 1781, Jefferson wrote the only full-length book that he would publish in his lifetime. The book was called Notes on the State of Virginia.Notes on the State of Virginia was a response to questions regarding Virginia that were asked of him by the Secretary of the French delegation in Philadelphia. It covered a vast array of questions on numerous topics, one of which being education. In Notes, as it is often referred to, Jefferson outlined the fundamental root of his educational views.
While his views were numerous and complex, it is possible to summarize his ideas in three main points.First, for Jefferson, it was absolutely essential that education not be an institution that is overly governed, but rather an institution that is locally controlled by the people of an area. Jefferson knew that the last thing the American people wanted was a government that bossed them around. He knew that free people deserved control over one of the most fundamental human rights – the right to education.Second, Jefferson believed that all children should receive at least three years of public-supported instruction in the areas of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Jefferson knew that in order for an individual to successfully move forward in any field, there was some fundamental and core knowledge that must be obtained.
In fact, Jefferson was a proponent of a continued education, but given the agrarian nature of his time, particularly in Virginia, he also knew that wasn’t practical for everyone. Still, as individuals progressed through the educational ranks, Jefferson placed incredible emphasis on the reading of history and other branches of the social sciences.Finally, Thomas Jefferson believed that students from lower socioeconomic background who showed academic promise deserved state support in pursuing further education. Even in the late 1700s, Jefferson realized that there was a gap in the opportunities afforded to the lower working class families. He felt it was the responsibility of the state, and in the best interest of the state, to help close this gap.While Jefferson’s work on education did not result in sweeping changes in legislation during his time in public service, he continued to write on the matter.
In 1817, he drafted what is now referred to as the Elementary School Act of 1817. This wasn’t an official piece of legislation, but rather a proposed piece of legislation sent to Virginia politician Joseph C. Cabell regarding the nature of public schooling. In this letter, Jefferson reaffirms his belief in a locally operated system of schooling that serves the entire population. Jefferson reaffirms his belief that the primary combatant of tyranny is a well-educated populace.In 1819, Thomas Jefferson took his views on education one step further by founding The University of Virginia (UVA).
Jefferson wanted UVA to be a place free of religious influence and one that allowed individuals to pursue their interests. He firmly believed that this type of education was essential to creating a self-sustaining citizenry.
Why Is Jefferson Relevant?
Of course, this video is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of truly unpacking Jefferson’s views. As with any other human being, details of his opinion shifted over time and circumstance. Still, the bedrock of his view remained that the people, through a local government, should control education, not the state or federal government.
This is incredibly relevant in today’s political landscape.Control of education is a perpetual debate. From the role of state boards of education to federal education programs, such as No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top, there is plenty of room for conversation regarding what type of control results in the best opportunity for students. Continuing to study the ideas of Thomas Jefferson may be a great place for a new educator, or someone simply interested in the governance of education, to begin their study.
In summary, Thomas Jefferson believed in a decentralized approach to education. This approach is outlined particularly in two well-known works entitled Notes on the State of Virginia and the Elementary School Act of 1817. He believed in a system ruled by the people at the local level.
He emphasized literacy and arithmetic for everyone and a focus on history and the social sciences for those who continued their education. Jefferson believed that in order for a society to be self-governed, it had to be educated and free-thinking. Certainly, Jefferson is not without his criticisms, and he may not have experienced the success he wanted in regards to legislation; still, he certainly impacted the field of education in a profound and positive way.
When this lesson is done, you should be able to:
- Identify the many facets of Thomas Jefferson’s life
- Recognize Jefferson’s influence on American education
- Describe Jefferson’s three factors in his Notes on the State of Virginia
- Detail his belief in public education from his draft of the Elementary School Act of 1817