Thomas Jefferson and Public Education

Thomas Jefferson - Third President of US

Jefferson regarded a comprehensive education for all as fundamental to both good government and the responsible practice of religion.

Jefferson’s high regard for the value of education is revealed in a letter he wrote at the age of seventy-three: “Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day. Although I do not, with some enthusiasts, believe that the human condition will ever advance to such a state of perfection as that there shall no longer be pain or vice in the world, yet I believe it susceptible of much improvement, and most of all in matters of government and religion; and that the diffusion of knowledge among the people is to be the instrument by which it is to be effected.”

Education and Government

With respect to government, Jefferson believed, the purpose of education is to help create responsible citizens. He wrote: “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right [i.e., well informed]; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers, and be capable of reading them.”

Education and Religion

With respect to religion, the purpose of education is to guard against fanaticism. Jefferson wrote: “The atmosphere of our country is unquestionably charged with a threatening cloud of fanaticism, lighter in some parts, denser in others, but too heavy in all. . . . The diffusion of instruction, to which there is now so growing an attention, will be the remote remedy to this fever of fanaticism; while the more proximate one will be the progress of Unitarianism. That this will, ere long, be the religion of the majority from north to south, I have no doubt.”

Obviously, Jefferson’s powers of prophecy failed him on this occasion – the rest of the country, apparently, was not as devoted to the use of reason in religion as was Thomas Jefferson.

Mr. Jefferson’s University

The great project which occupied Jefferson during the last years of his life was the University of Virginia. For some time he had advocated a comprehensive program of education for his native state, beginning with a system of free elementary and secondary schools, and culminating in a distinguished state university. After years of political maneuvering with the legislature, it was ultimately only the university that was created – but Jefferson put all of his considerable talents to use in this new endeavor.

He surveyed the site for the university in nearby Charlottesville, designed the buildings, selected the faculty (in keeping with his commitment to religious freedom, not including a professor of divinity), planned the courses that would be offered, and even drew up a student handbook – all this, and much more, while in his seventies. He lived long enough to see the first class enrolled; and he would have been gratified to know that what is still known as “Mr. Jefferson’s university” has since produced both politicians and poets.