In Part 1 and Part 2, I showed how Thomas Jefferson valued education as the tool to ensure our republic’s perpetuity and Americans’ “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But today’s public education system isn’t exactly what Jefferson had in mind for his academic reformation.
Yes, Jefferson imagined schools as places that taught a broad range of academic basics, like reading, writing, arithmetic and history. But that’s about the extent to which Jefferson would agree with our elementary and high schools.
For Jefferson, there were three stages of academia: the first was elementary or pre-grammar schooling; the second, grammar school (literally, “for teaching Greek, Latin, geography and the higher branches of numerical arithmetic”); and the third, the university.
But Jefferson – as well as most of the other founders – couldn’t ever imagine that public education would be controlled by the federal or even state governments. He believed it should be run and funded by parents and those in local communities or wards.
In 1784, Jefferson proposed a bill in the state of Virginia that outlined his thinking for a public education system. In it, he planned to divide “every county into small districts of five or six miles square … and in each of them to establish a school for teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic.”
For Jefferson, local communities having total control over their schools was a basic and fundamental extension under a free republic. It gave credence to his understanding of the purposes and tiers of government:
“Let the national government be entrusted with the defense of the nation, and its foreign and federal relations; the State governments with the civil rights, laws, police, and administration of what concerns the State generally; the counties with the local concerns of the counties, and each ward direct the interests within itself. It is by dividing and subdividing these republics from the great national one down through all its subordinations, until it ends in the administration of every man’s farm by himself; by placing under every one what his own eye may superintend, that all will be done for the best. What has destroyed liberty and the rights of man in every government which has ever existed under the sun? The generalizing and concentrating all cares and powers into one body, no matter whether of the autocrats of Russia or France, or of the aristocrats of a Venetian senate. And I do believe that if the Almighty has not decreed that man shall never be free, (and it is a blasphemy to believe it,) that the secret will be found to be in the making himself the depository of the powers respecting himself, so far as he is competent to them, and delegating only what is beyond his competence by a synthetical process, to higher and higher orders of functionaries, so as to trust fewer and fewer powers in proportion as the trustees become more and more oligarchical. The elementary republics of the wards, the county republics, the States republics, and the republic of the Union, would form a gradation of authorities, standing each on the basis of law, holding every one its delegated share of powers, and constituting truly a system of fundamental balances and checks for the government.”
As late as 1816, while still trying to enact his educational plan, Jefferson wrote to Sen. Joseph C. Cabell Monticello about the sheer folly of states running the educational system:
“If, however, it is intended that the State government shall take this business into its own hands, and provide schools for every county, then by all means strike out this provision of our bill. I would never wish that it should be placed on a worse footing than the rest of the State. But if it is believed that these elementary schools will be better managed by the governor and council, the commissioners of the literary fund, or any other general authority of the government, than by the parents within each ward, it is a belief against all experience.”
Jefferson argued for the founding of “each school at once under the care of those most interested in its conduct.” Each elementary school was to be supervised by local parents and peers who were passionate to ensure children’s education, which included the selection and oversight of teachers (tutors) as well as their salaries. And those who couldn’t afford their children’s tuitions would be covered, at least in part, by those who could assist them.
Jefferson proposed that, regarding the most basic or elementary education, “every person in it entitled to send their children three years gratis, and as much longer as they please, paying for it.” And from there, parents would continue to pay for advanced education, too. (Jefferson’s basic parental fiscal philosophy was: If you bring them into the world, you pay for them until they are responsible enough to pay for themselves.)
Of course, Jefferson’s proposal for public education wasn’t perfect. Even he reflected some of the educational biases of his day, chief among them was his views on limited education for women and slaves. But that didn’t mean that he would have opposed their complete education in a more liberating era.
In fact, according to our own Library of Congress, Jefferson wrote Quaker Robert Pleasants and advised that slaves be educated based upon his 1784 Virginia public educational system plan as one step in preparing those who were “destined to be free” under our new republic.
In addition for Jefferson’s own daughters, he believed it was “essential to give them a solid education which might enable them, when become mothers, to educate their own daughters, and even to direct the course for sons, should their fathers be lost, or incapable, or inattentive.”
I’m not proposing that we follow every jot and tittle of Jefferson’s proposed educational system. However, I do believe we would be well served by adopting some of his basic educational philosophies, such as returning complete educational autonomy to parents and experts in local communities. Overreaching educational laws and programs – like No Child Left Behind – centered in Washington and even State Seats have only multiplied bureaucratic red tape, tied the hands of parents, administrators and teachers, and relinquished school funding and choices (including textbooks) to the power and pocketbook of special interest groups.
(In Part 4, I will address possibly the most controversial aspect of Thomas Jefferson and public education: Did he advocate and expect only a completely secular education for the public?)