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It goes without saying that Thomas Jefferson was an exceptionally significant figure in American history. What many may not already know is how much Jefferson impacted our system of education. Gordon C. Lee states that “Jefferson’s importance for the field of education lies in the ideals he proclaimed for America and in his ringing insistence that without energetic attention to education such ideals are foredoomed” (p. 23). Some may instead argue that Jefferson’s University of Virginia was his greatest contribution to the history of education as a prime example of a high-functioning, “dynamic,” college. Whether you value his opinion and legacy or his accomplishments more, no one can ignore Jefferson’s impact in this matter. Jefferson had a strong vision of an “ideal” education system, which has greatly influenced American academia. It takes very little research to realize that Thomas Jefferson had a lasting impression on today’s higher education.

Before Jefferson came along and proposed his ideas for educational reform, education in the American colonies (about 1609 – 1779) was segregated by social class, as was common throughout the history of education. Most institutions were private, localized around populated areas, and only available to those who could afford them. In general, lower class children could receive minimal education: basic literacy, fundamental mathematics, and religious instruction; upper class children could surpass these bare essentials to study Greek and Latin at private grammar schools, and even continue schooling in pursuit of college. Colonial America had many different features defining schooling. Every region of the colonies had various cultures influencing their societies, including education. New England, being a primarily Puritan area, capitalized on religion and proper behavior in their education; Mid-Atlantic colonies consisted of several cultural influences, therefore requiring several school systems to cover each of the cultures’ religions and traditions; Southern colonies utilized the aforementioned education system based on social class, with the addition of slave children who studied the necessary skills to carry out their labor. Also found in the colonies were “dame schools”: institutions usually founded by women where girls could learn very basic education along with basic homemaking skills (Gelbrich). Jefferson was among the “gentry class” as a boy – that is, just below nobility – and therefore received an education under this system. He studied through an English elementary school and a Latin school, and then advanced to study under a Reverend named James Maury for two years, followed by two years attending the College of William and Mary, and finally finishing his educational experience studying alongside George Wythe (Wilson). Wythe first met Jefferson as his student at William and Mary, and presently integrated him as a sort of research apprentice. From this affectionate student-mentor relationship, Jefferson devised the idea of affectionate pedagogy for his educational proposals. In this proposal, the scholar-mentor would subtly coach the apprentice-student into developing a critical and dynamic thought process by means of the positive bond established between them (Hellenbrand, p. 14-15). In a sense, the mentor would extensively educate the student in higher subjects such as science and history much like a father would educate his son in basic language and math, with the close bond between them serving as the student’s motivation.

Jefferson had many strong opinions concerning education; to him, it was possibly the most important institution for a civilization, especially one having just undergone a revolution. “His works suggest how formal and informal education in the colonial period worked not just to foster individual advancement and secular progress, but to promote civic virtue, social stability, and regional and national unity” (Hellenbrand, p. 13). In relation to affectionate pedagogy, Jefferson believed the state had paternal responsibilities for its general public and its youth, “and further, that to endure in an age of revolution, the state must imprint amor patriae [love of one’s country] on its young,” which was earlier mentioned as fulfilled by a common education (p. 69). Through education including basic welfare, the state could ensure generations of devoted citizens. When a society is exposed to a common education, it has that much more uniting it with the nation. Even the most basic education will enlighten the people, “and liberty without enlightenment seemed to Jefferson a contradiction in concepts, an anomaly” (Lee, p. 2). “To Jefferson, then, liberty depended on education, an education that would ensure that the inalienable rights recently proclaimed and fought for in the Revolution would in fact be realized by his and future generations” (Gilreath, p. 118). Further on the subject of inalienable rights, Jefferson strongly advocated equal opportunity of education. He believed it was sacrilegious to reserve liberties for one kind of man. “To hold that some men possessed … more basic rights or privileges than others was to attribute to God a whimsicality or capriciousness wholly inconsistent with the image of a supreme intelligence. …for Jefferson, the nature of man was an essence… infringement of that essence was a crime against God as well as man” (Lee, p. 10-11). Lee continues to describe how Jefferson knew the inalienable rights were unconditional and could either be endowed to everyone or no one – therefore, the demand for equal opportunity was placed.

Jefferson’s perception of man’s intellectual purpose underwent several amendments throughout his studies and campaigns concerning education. The first to surface was that “man… is most free when he is most nearly or completely self-sufficient, hence his education must be concerned with developing such inner resourcefulness” (Lee, p. 19). He realized, though, that “intellectualism is not fruitful in isolation,” so he revised his ideals to include the pursuit of human betterment. Jefferson believed the goal of education was to produce an enlightened, critically-thinking individual who would use his intellect to better humankind as needed (p. 20). Jefferson wanted people to be able to think and act independently of pressure or propaganda, to continue their education throughout life. This was Jefferson’s definition of “general diffusion of knowledge” (p. 21). Within this concept of inner resourcefulness is the idea that no past generation should constrict its successors; “even laws and constitutions must be seen as subject to reconsideration and revision.” Jefferson demanded that mankind should welcome change, for only through change can there be progress. This is marked the beginning of a “dynamic” educational system – one driven by research and experimentation. “Only as men were free to think, test, decide for themselves were they behaving truly as men ‘endowed by their Creator’” (p. 13). Jefferson began compiling this concept with the other opinions he possessed, and began taking action to make it a reality.

Jefferson pictured a system of hierarchy between the different levels of school: common “elementary” schools, grammar schools, and college. Children would begin their education in the elementary school (finish!!). Wealthy children would no doubt advance through the levels simply because they could. However, Jefferson’s firm belief in equal opportunity demanded the state “to supply and maintain a system of general instruction, which shall reach every description of our citizens, from the richest to the poorest” (Lee, p. 19). To make this idea a reality, Jefferson suggested a scholarship system to be established to allow a handful of underprivileged children with intellect and potential to receive the same education, provided by the commonwealth (Hellenbrand, p. 76). Jefferson also intended for the schools to echo the education he experienced: “they would all live together… they would become members of a family that was reconstituted by the bond of study.” (p. 81) His goal was to create a school that would take full advantage of the intimate experience of affectionate pedagogy while offering equal scholastic opportunity to underprivileged children. He began to construct a ground plan for the architecture of William and Mary modeled after a village structure – the students would live and study together, the professors would live nearby and roughly follow the guidelines for an affectionate pedagogy, and the library and other academic buildings would be nearby and easily accessible like giant separate rooms of a house (p. 143-146). This setup improved the academic experience by making it more personable; students had the opportunity to bond with each other and their professors, and had the leisure of having easy access to academic resources, such as a library, that were exclusive to the students of the college. The school itself was charged with helping to establish moral character. “In part this would be done by encouraging young people to reflect on the consequences of decisions made in everyday life and to heed the promptings of conscience. Judicious reading could also aid in the moral reasoning process. …carefully selected works of fiction could be of some value in terms of teaching values” (Gilreath, p. 122).

Jefferson’s first proposal to install his ideals was a bill, appropriately named A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, in 1779. The bill describes how education can save the government from tyranny if the majority of the public is moderately educated. Jefferson detailed the bill to explain how the nation would be able to recognize the signs of tyranny in its beginning stages and will rise to stop it. He then described that such enlightened people would be most content with a government that is clearly concerned about the positive morals. Finally, he comes around to the point of the Bill: Overall the point of the bill was to give equal opportunity to poor children who showed academic excellence to have higher education at common expense. He proposed that three Aldermen, which are honest and able men, should be appointed to each county, and they should build and maintain schoolhouses – ensure they are kept clean and in repair, they are supplied with provision and fuel, and they can provide water and proper basic education. The Aldermen would each become an overseer of a unit of 100 schools, and each overseer would annually appoint one outstanding underprivileged boy to advance to the grammar school of his district. Through an ongoing process of whittling out the most excellent underprivileged boys, one boy would remain to become a senior and would advance to the College of William and Mary, with his expensed paid for up to three years at that institution (Lee, p. 83-92). The Bill was ultimately defeated, but some of the concepts – for example, providing scholarships for the exceptional student – have survived. Eventually, a revised version of the bill did pass in 1796 as “An Act to Establish Public Schools.”

After Jefferson retired from Presidency, he became particularly concerned with the apparent lack of academic progress in the South. It seemed that between the growing popularity of the use of one’s own knowledge and the “petty academies” in Virginia that offered a less-than-satisfactory higher education, there was significantly less enlightenment among students. Jefferson soon recognized a need for more advanced public schools. He began transforming Albemarle Academy, which is in central North Carolina, into a specialized college, unleashing an academic plan he had been forming for decades, and created the University of Virginia. This University’s academic plan would include most if not all of the aforementioned ideas Jefferson had thought so highly of – affectionate pedagogy, scholarships for the disadvantaged, etc. This college became a beacon for future universities since the academic palette was more diverse than had ever been seen to at that point, as it was completely separate from the church and any religious studies, and it was built around a great library (Hellenbrand, p. 142-143).

Thomas Jefferson could arguably have had the biggest impact on our nation; few men in existence could hold their resume to his. As far as higher education is concerned, Jefferson revolutionized it. What began as an exclusively wealthy man’s privilege became, and is to this day, an option of enlightenment that is accessible to nearly everyone. His demand for a more “dynamic” education process, defined by research and discovery, greatly influenced today’s academic system. The University of Virginia melded these ideals to provide a prime example of how he believed education should happen. Without his vision and persistence to achieve these ideals, many of us would not be at the academic state we are in, and it is almost certain that our country wouldn’t have made nearly as many of the major advancements it has since his day.


  Thomas Jefferson on Higher Education


Page Author: Lyndsey Burkette

Saturday, 11-Feb-2012 14:19



Gilreath, James (edited). Thomas Jefferson and the Education of a Citizen. Washington: Library of Congress, 1999.

Hellenbrand, Harold. The Unfinished Revolution: Education and Politics in the Thought of Thomas Jefferson. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1990.

Lee, Gordon C. (introduction and edited). Crusade Against Ignorance: Thomas Jefferson on Education. New York: Bureau of Publications: Teacher's College, Columbia University, 1961.

Gelbrich, Judy. American Education. 1999. 23 January 2012 <>

Wilson, Gaye (original). Jefferson’s Formal Education. December 1999. 24 January 2012.


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