Thomas Jefferson on Education

Published November 1, 2005

One advantage of interpreting the words of those no longer with us is that it is frequently possible to imply they said what we would like them to say. In that regard, no Founding Father is cited more favorably by the public school establishment than Thomas Jefferson.

Probably the most often cited is his statement, “if a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” That is not a statement about schools, of course. One can be educated without being schooled. One also can be schooled without being educated.

In 1814, Jefferson made a clear distinction between the two as he said, “I hope our successors will turn their attention to the advantages of education. I mean education on the broad scale, and not that of the petty academies.”

Opposed Government Control

While governor of Virginia in 1779, Jefferson proposed a school bill. There would be scholarships for elementary pupils whose families could not afford the cost. Tuition at the 20 secondary schools should be paid for by the students, Jefferson proposed, with financial aid for bright but needy students.

That sounds like vouchers.

When a 1780 bill proposed placing education in the hands of state officials, Jefferson said, “If it is believed that these elementary schools will be better managed by the governor and council or any other general authority of the government, than by the parents within each ward, it is a belief against all experience.”

In 1781-82, in his Notes on Virginia, Jefferson proposed three years of free basic schooling. He said that should be done by dividing each county into small districts five or six miles square, called hundreds, in which reading, writing, and arithmetic would be taught for three years in a school created, controlled, and supported locally.

Jefferson believed that amount of schooling was sufficient for the majority of the population, as the best education was to be obtained by activity in the society at large.

Three Years Sufficient

Jefferson suggested there be available “to the wealthier part of the people convenient schools, at which their children may be educated.” For children whose parents could not afford further education, each year the best boy–and he did say “boy”–would be chosen to attend one of the 20 advanced regional schools. “By this means,” he said, “twenty of the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually.”

After six years of further schooling, half of the students would end their education, from whom future grammar school teachers could come. The other half would study “such sciences as they shall chuse [sic], at William and Mary College.”

Jefferson was still advocating his plan years later, as he did in a letter to John Adams on October 28, 1813.

Participation would be voluntary. For his “Bill for the Establishment of Religious Freedom” in 1786, Jefferson had written, “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical; even forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor whose morals he would make his pattern.”

Recognizing there might be some few parents who might neglect the education of their children, Jefferson declared, “it is better to tolerate that rare instance of a parent’s refusing to let his child be educated, than to shock the common feelings by a forcible transportation and education of the infant against the will of his father.”

Dreaded Federal Courts’ Mandates

U.S. Supreme Court decisions regarding schooling and the First Amendment didn’t really become an issue until the Everson decision in 1947 initiated a history of judicial controversies that continues today.

That was something Jefferson foresaw … and dreaded. He said, “The great object of my fear is the Federal judiciary. That body, like gravity, ever acting, with noiseless foot, and unalarming advance, gaining ground step by step, and holding what it gains, is engulfing insidiously the special governments into the jaws of that which feeds them.”

Clearly, Jefferson favored student grants, parental control of their child’s education, and minimal government interference in the education process.

David Kirkpatrick ([email protected]) is a senior education fellow at the U.S. Freedom Foundation. This article was reprinted with permission from the January 27, 2005 issue of SchoolReport.