Thomas Jefferson’s Plan
Thomas Jefferson’s Plan
Republican Society . After independence Virginia and the other states had to revise many of their laws, which had rested on the authority of the king. In Virginia Thomas Jefferson was assigned to rewrite the state’s legal code. Jefferson was not content simply to remove vestiges of British rule; his revision aimed to destroy aristocratic privilege and any form of tyranny over the mind of man. Jefferson proposed particular laws to do this: one abolished primogeniture and entail, rules of inheritance which prevented large estates from being broken up and bequeathed to several children. This law, Jefferson said, “laid the axe to the roote of Psuedo-aristocracy.” He was disappointed and frustrated that the assembly did not pass his more ambitious law on education, which would have created a statewide system of public grammar schools, elementary schools, academies, and a public college and state library. This law would have ensured that “Worth and genius” would be “sought out from every condition of life, and compleatly prepared by education for defeating the competition of wealth and birth for public trusts.”
Virginia . Jefferson understood the importance of education. In Virginia only the children of wealthy men, such as Jefferson, could be sent to school. Teachers were paid by parents, and their real job was to prepare young men for college. Since entrance to college required a knowledge of Latin and Greek, these private schools and academies focused on these languages. Children were more often educated at home, but this education was meant to prepare a child for a life of farming or plying a trade rather than for college or literary pursuits. In Virginia slave children were not taught to read and write, as this might allow them to escape. Virginia’s educational system encouraged elites to send their sons to college to be trained as leaders of society; children of all others, white and black, were educated to remain subservient to the educated elite.
Proposal . Jefferson’s system of education was a dramatic change. He called for each county to have surveyors
lay out the land into districts of five or six square miles and to determine the relative population of each. The free inhabitants of each district then would decide where to build a school, which would be paid for by taxes. All free children in the district, male and female, would attend the school for free. “This would throw on wealth the education of the poor,” Jefferson said. The children would learn “reading, writing, and common arithmetick,” and the texts used should also acquaint them with “Graecian, Roman, English, and American history.”
Upward Mobility . All children would attend this school for three years; parents wanting to send their children for longer would have to pay tuition. Each year the superintendent, appointed by the alderman to supervise ten of the grammar schools, would choose one student, “of best genius in the school, of those whose parents are too poor to give them further education,” and send that student on to the next level at public expense. Jefferson proposed building twenty schools throughout the state to teach Greek, Latin, geography, and higher mathematics to prepare students for college. After six years the best students would go on to college where they would learn the sciences, while the others would be qualified to go home and teach at the grammar schools. By this means, Jefferson wrote, “twenty of the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually, and be instructed, at the public expense, so far as the grammar schools go.” The whole plan would break the connection between wealth and power, as all children would have a chance to be educated, and the most talented would be encouraged to learn. “The ultimate result of the whole scheme of education would be the teaching all the children of the state reading, writing, and common arithmetic: turning out ten annually of superior genius, well taught in Greek, Latin, geography, and the higher branches of arithmetic: turning out ten others annually, of still superior parts, who, to those branches of learning, shall have added such of the sciences as their genius shall have led them to: the furnishing to the wealthier part of the people convenient schools, at which their children may be educated, at their own expence.”
RULES FOR A PHILADELPHIA SUNDAY SCHOOL, 1791
I. Persons of each sex, and of any age, shall be admitted into these schools, in which they shall be taught to read and write: the hours of teaching will be, during the present season, from eight to half-past ten o’clock in the morning: and from half past four to half past six in the evening.
II. The teachers shall oblige all who are committed to their charge to attend public worship every Sunday, in the society to which they respectively belong, unless prevented by illness or any other sufficient cause.
III. The teachers shall take care that the scholars come clean to their respective schools; and if any scholar be guilty of lying, swearing, pilfering, talking in an indecent manner, or other misbehaviour, the teacher shall point out the evil of such conduct; and if, after repeated reproof, the scholar shall not be reformed, he or she shall be excluded from the school.
IV. The religious observance of the Christian Sabbath, being an essential object with the society for the institution and support of Sunday Schools, the exercise of the scholars shall be restricted to reading the Old and New Testament, and to writing copies from the same.
V. A copy of the above Rules shall be put up in the school-rooms, and read by the teacher to the scholars every Sunday.
Failure of Reform. Jefferson’s plan failed in the assembly. First the assembly amended his bill to allow the judges in each county to decide when the whole system of education should be created; Jefferson believed that since the judges tended to be wealthy and thus would be forced to pay taxes to educate poorer children, they would be unwilling to create this ambitious system. The assembly voted down the whole measure in 1786, but Jefferson continued to advocate creating an educational system that would reward talent rather than wealth and privilege. No state would create a system as ambitious as Jefferson’s until long after his death in 1826; Virginia
could not create such a system until after the Civil War, when the power of the planting elite had been broken and slavery had been abolished.
College Education. Jefferson also had plans for college education. His original bill called for making his alma mater, the College of William and Mary, into a university which would teach science. The college, however, was unwilling to be taken over by the state because it was still under the control of the Anglican Church, which required all professors to subscribe to the Church’s thirty-nine articles and students to learn its catechism. Moreover, Baptists opposed the measure because they feared that a university at William and Mary would help disseminate Anglicanism. As a result Jefferson turned his attention after his retirement from the presidency in 1809 to the founding of the University of Virginia, which was established in 1819.
IN THE CLASSROOM
Thomas Jefferson’s plan to reform Virginia’s education system gave a broad outline of a progressive school structure; the details of what was taught, he thought, would be filled in by experts. Jefferson, however, had his own ideas on the proper course of instruction:
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 inquiries, their memories may here be stored with the most useful facts from Grecian, Roman, European, and American history. 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 showing 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. Those whom either the wealth of their parents or the adoption of the state shall destine to higher degrees of learning, will go on to the grammar schools, which constitute the next stage, there to be instructed in the languages. The learning Greek and Latin, I am told, is going into disuse in Europe. I know not what their manners and occupations may call for: but it would be very ill-judged in us to follow their example in this instance. There is a certain period of life, say from eight to fifteen or sixteen years of age, when the mind, like the body, is not yet firm enough for laborious and close operations. If applied to such, it falls an early victim to premature exertion; exhibiting indeed at first, in these young and tender subjects, the flattering appearance of their being men while they are yet children, but ending in reducing them to be children when they should be men. The memory is then most susceptible and tenacious of impressions; and the learning of languages being chiefly a work of memory, it seems precisely fitted for the powers of this period, which is long enough too for acquiring the most useful languages ancient and modern. I do not pretend that language is science. It is only an instrument for the attainment of science. But that time is not lost which is employed in providing tools for future operation: more especially as in this case the books put into the hands of the youth for this purpose may be such as will at the same time impress their minds with useful facts and good principles. If this period be suffered to pass in idleness, the mind becomes lethargic and impotent, as would the body it inhabits if unexercised during the same time.
Source: Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (1787), in The Portable Thomas Jefferson, edited by Merrill Peterson (New York: Viking, 1974).
Merrill Peterson, ed., The Portable Thomas Jefferson (New York: Viking, 1974);
Wilson Smith, ed., Theories of Education in Early America (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973);
David B. Tyack, ed., Turning Points in American Educational History (Waltham, Mass.: Blaisdell, 1967).