In this last installment of my back-to-school series, I will address possibly the most controversial aspect of Thomas Jefferson and public education: Did he advocate and expect only a completely secular public education system?
In Part 3, I showed how Jefferson – as well as most of the other founders – couldn’t ever imagine that public education would be controlled by the federal, much less a state, government. He believed it should be run and funded by parents and those in local communities or wards.
To recap, 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.”
Jefferson proposed three stages of formal education: the first was pre-grammar schooling, the second grammar school and the third, the university.
But what about religious education?
Rather than remain only in churches or private schools, Jefferson proposed religious education also be incorporated in the public education system, too, but with a twist.
True, Jefferson thought it best that it not be included among the curricula in the earliest stages of children’s schooling. In his own words, he said, “The first stage of this education being the schools of the hundreds, wherein the great mass of the people will receive their instruction, the principal foundations of future order will be laid here. Instead therefore of putting the Bible and Testament into the hands of the children, at an age when their judgments are not sufficiently matured for religious enquiries, their memories may here be stored with the most useful facts from Grecian, Roman, European and American history.”
But Jefferson immediately followed those words by clarifying, “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.”
So Jefferson was not against religious education in public schools, but against it being inculcated upon those whose “judgments are not sufficiently matured for religious enquiries.”
And remember these three further points: First, the Revolutionary period was an era steeped in ministerial and religious academic institutions, both private and public. For example, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, as well as other Ivy League schools were all founded on a sectarian or denominational basis for Christian ministerial training.
Secondly, Christian education and instruction were far more prevalent within the make-up of society, homes and parental instruction in Jefferson’s day than today.
Third, Jefferson did espouse religious instruction in public education, but in latter stages of academia. He believed it should be incorporated at an age when judgments were “sufficiently matured for religious enquiries.”
Even Jefferson’s own university – the University of Virginia (chartered in 1819, opened to students in 1825), which is often hailed my modernists and progressives as America’s first secular university – was in reality anything but.
Wallbuilders.com has posted a must-read article on its website titled: “Thomas Jefferson and Religion at the University of Virginia,” by Dr. Mark Beliles and Dr. David Barton. In it, the authors point out that Jefferson “founded the University of Virginia as a school not affiliated with only one denomination; it was specifically founded as a trans-denominational school.”
As such, Jefferson espoused that religious education not be placed under a traditional professor of divinity, as in other denominational universities of the day, but that, in his own words, “the proofs of the being of a God – the Creator, Preserver, and Supreme Ruler of the Universe – the Author of all the relations of morality and of the laws and obligations these infer – will be within the province of the Professor of Ethics.”
In addition, rather than a single school of divinity, Jefferson espoused: “We suggest the expediency of encouraging the different religious sects to establish, each for itself, a professorship of their own tenets on the confines of the university so near as that their students may attend the lectures there and have the free use of our library and every other accommodation we can give them. … [B]y bringing the sects [denominations] together and mixing them with the mass of other students, we shall soften their asperities [harshness], liberalize and neutralize their prejudices [prejudgment without an examination of the facts], and make the general religion a religion of peace, reason, and morality.”
Jefferson not only ensured study about God at the university, but he also made provision for the students to worship the Creator there. He allocated rooms at the university be used for religious practice or worship, and that “the students of the University will be free and expected to attend.”
The fact is, Thomas Jefferson, who is regarded today by so many as the “great separatist,” did not separate religious education and expression from public education. In fact, he was against limiting education and stifling Americans’ freedoms in any form, including religious expression and education. (That is, after all, precisely what America’s founders, including Jefferson, were seeking to protect in the First Amendment.)
It is no surprise, therefore, that on Dec. 26, 1820, Thomas Jefferson wrote to Destutt Tracy about his vision for the University of Virginia: “This institution of my native state, the hobby of my old age, will be based upon the illimitable freedom of the human mind, to explore and expose every subject susceptible of its contemplation.”
One day later he wrote to William Roscoe a similar but expanded thought, “This institution 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 to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”
Bottom line, while many today describe the origin of the University of Virginia as a secular school, it was actually a non-sectarian or – better yet – trans- or multi-sectarian school that allowed for the provision of a variety of religious education, including the Bible and creationism.
It makes one wonder today: If Jefferson was against a narrow-minded education, what would he think of a completely secular-progressive and politically correct public education system that pervades the U.S. landscape and in which instruction about intelligent design and the Bible are generally scorned and prohibited?
Of course, Thomas Jefferson was not alone among the founders in his views that public education should include God and religion – and specifically Christianity.
As Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, wrote in his writing “To the citizens of Philadelphia: A Plan for Free Schools” on March 28, 1787: “Let the children who are sent to those schools be taught to read and write and above all, let both sexes be carefully instructed in the principles and obligations of the Christian religion. This is the most essential part of education.”
Noah Webster, the “Father of American Scholarship and Education,” stated: “In my view, the Christian religion is the most important and one of the first things in which all children, under a free government, ought to be instructed. … No truth is more evident to my mind than that the Christian religion must be the basis of any government intended to secure the rights and privileges of a free people.”
In 1789, during the same time when the First Amendment was written, then-President George Washington signed into law the Northwest Ordinance, which states, “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”
That is why my wife, Gena, and I are on the board of “The National Council of Bible Curriculum in Public Schools,” which offers a course on teaching the Bible as history and literature. It has been implemented in 776 public school districts and 2,377 high schools in 38 states. More than 550,000 students have already taken the course. You, too, can learn more about the curriculum, why its teaching is constitutional, and how it can be implemented in your public school by contacting:
National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools
Post Office Box 9743
Greensboro, North Carolina, 27429
(877) OnBible (662-4253)
(336) 272-7199 (fax)
Or go to BibleinSchools.net.
America’s founders’ educational philosophy seems to me to be the charter of a true American system of education. But as we know, our nation’s public schools, and especially our nation’s colleges and universities, are the seedbeds of politically correct and leftist indoctrination. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is. It’s a travesty that we have come to this point that we have to double-check everything our children are learning or protect them from so much in the public school systems by looking to alternative methods.
As I’ve written before, if you have a good public school, congratulations. Stay active in the PTA and attend school board meetings to keep it that way. But, if you don’t, for many parents the only responsible choice is to send their children to a private, parochial, Christian school, charter system or homeschooling. My wife and I homeschool our 12-year-old twins.