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Modern universities are centers of human interaction, usually associated with both socialization and education as main activities. Individuals from diverse backgrounds and various homelands are grouped together to expand their worldviews in conjunction with learning in this environment. The start of such college settings began with the establishment of the University of Virginia, which was founded by Thomas Jefferson soon after his presidency in 1819. This school was the first American trans-secular university during its time and incorporated the freedom of religion into its curriculum (Bellies and Barton, 2009). This first step towards diversity established the concept of a large and varied student population within universities that is still being used today. Jefferson’s creation of a multiple denomination school introduced the first concept of diversity into American universities and was the foundation for the modern education theory of student variety.

Jefferson was known for several accomplishments in his lifetime, however it was his foundation of the University of Virginia that largely affected the American educational system. According to Dr. Daryl Cornett of Mid-America Theological Seminary, “Jefferson also founded the first intentionally secularized university in America. His vision for the University of Virginia was for education finally free from traditional Christian dogma. He had a disdain for the influence that institutional Christianity had on education. At the University of Virginia there was no Christian curriculum and the school had no chaplain. Its faculty were religiously Deists and Unitarians” (Beliles and Barton, 2009). As a Unitarian himself, Jefferson did not reject Christianity, but did not believe in the Doctrine of the Trinity which defined three main policies: the presence of only one God, the existence of three eternal persons, and the unity of these three beings (the Father, the Son, and the Spirit) as one entity. As these dogmas were incontrovertibly true in the Christian faith they contradicted several scientific and universal knowledge advancements that under nonreligious circumstances would have benefited universities (Stone, 1903). As John Newman acknowledged in his book, religious teachings and universal knowledge did not properly coexist. “If its [the university’s] object were scientific and philosophical discovery, I do not see why a University should have students; if religious training, I do not see how it can be the seat of literature and science” (Newman, 1996). As the creator of the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, which instituted the separation of church and state in Virginia in 1786, Jefferson believed in a teaching system devoid of the pressures of religious teachings (Levy, 1898). Modeling the principles of his bill he created the University of Virginia.

The university was founded in 1819, but was not officially opened for classes until 1825. And the first faculty consisted of only eight professors with a student body numbering sixty-eight. Jefferson envisioned this new and still growing university to be a school dedicated to educating leaders in practical affairs and public service rather than for professions in the classroom and pulpit. In this way the University of Virginia was the first nonsectarian university in America. Classes were offered in ancient languages, modern languages, mathematics, moral philosophy, natural philosophy, chemistry, law, and medicine and yet they were not deliberately related to religious concepts as per usual. These classes provided a separation from the common studies of religious schools, and hence differed from the normal focus of the education of ministers unlike other universities (Adams, 2006). Also as a nonsectarian and multiple denomination school no part of the regular school day was set aside for religious worship. Different religious sects were encouraged to each establish a professorship of their own doctrines on the grounds of the University. In 1824 formal regulations were adopted which provided that the "religious sects of this State might establish within, or adjacent to, the precincts of the University, schools for instruction in the religion of their own sect. Students of the university were free, and expected to attend religious worship at the establishment" (Levy, 1989). This concept invited several different religions to be present on campus, which thus led diverse religion oriented students to the university. For the first time in American history separate religions converged at a single university and allowed for the teaching of knowledge lacking religious connections as well as the freedom to practice whatever religion they held faith towards outside of the classroom.

Although the University of Virginia was America’s first state school it was not the county’s first university; prior to its time came Havard in 1636, the College of William and Mary in 1692, Yale in 1701, and Darthmouth in 1769 along with several other colleges and universities. What made the University of Virginia unique in comparison was that all these preceding schools were founded originally by one particular denomination and expected to produce mainly ministers (Adams, 2006). Especially "in such colonies as Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Pennsylvania the schools were largely conducted by religious organizations and would consequently have the religious aim prominent in their undertakings" (Holtz, 2009). Dissimilar to Jefferson’s university, classes usually consisted of topics that were associated with religious teachings such as the study of Latin, which allowed students to read the Latin bible. Other subjects were intentionally related to the Christian Doctrine through biblical references despite not being necessarily relevant to the religion. As Adrian Holtz explained, "The religious element of instruction was the hub, and all the other branches were those which aided in strengthening the hub" (Holtz, 2006). Daily prayers were particularly important in these schools as well and time was set for students to pray each day. Prioritized, prayers were completed despite the statuses of classes or studies, one of the largest differences between the University of Virginia and other universities during this time.

Jefferson believed that the enlightenment of American citizens would create a strong society; however religion based universities regulated the education of students, which did not always improve comprehension, but instead strengthened faith. Therefore the University of Virginia introduced the concept of a “university that would not have just one specific theological school but rather would invite many denominations to establish schools at the university; the various denominations would therefore all work together in mutual cooperation rather than in competition” (Barton and Beliles, 2009). In this way the University of Virginia established a school with several religious doctrines, a concept that was explicitly unheard of at that time in America. Jefferson envisioned a new kind of university that focused on the education of several occupations and supported the accumulation of universal knowledge. Spreading religious beliefs over several separate religions allowed for the pressure accumulated from the influence of a single religion to die down. The attention of the educational system refocused not on a sole important faith, but instead on the instruction of the student, prioritizing education over prayer. Because the force of religion was distributed among many beliefs, without one of higher importance religion was relaxed (Bellies and Barton, 2009). These traits opened opportunities for a wide range of different students to enter the university. From separate religious backgrounds and with assorted future careers the students of the University of Virginia represented the first attempt at diversity in the university setting. With this first transformation in education the path towards modern diversity of schools was opened. And as education voyaged through time, universities began to open their doors to a range of various types of people.

Today universities and colleges are known to have vastly diverse student populations. From different races to distinctive ideologies, the population that occupies modern secondary schooling incorporates a wide variety of people. Perhaps not modernly observed as an equal schooling system for every American citizen, the colonial University of Virginia was ahead of its time when it integrated several religious doctrines into its curriculum. As was unheard of at the time and therefore often ridiculed for, the multiple denomination university gave its students religious freedom, the closest concept to educational diversity the boundaries of society allowed it at the time. Pushing the limits of society to except this form of instruction prepared the country for advancements in the future; to except women into university, African Americans as well and other future forms of advancing diversity in schools. The University of Virginia was the foundation for this greater cause and without it modern colleges and universities may not have been as accepting of their applicants as they are currently.

The freedom of religion in modern times is one of the basic foundations of American universities to the point that the concept is rarely mentioned before ethnicity and cultural background on the topic of educational diversity. So comfortable with various religions are students that the freedom to follow any faith is almost natural. This impression is unquestionably a response due to the University of Virginia’s expression of religious diversity as the first multiple denomination school. By establishing various religious sects on campus grounds and allowing students to join whichever they wished this university developed the first form of diversity through supporting numerous religions. And by creating a nonreligious curriculum, improved the teaching methods of universal knowledge, which in turn attracted various persons as well (Levy, 1989). Taking this first step, the University of Virginia opened eyes to the possibilities of education between different varieties of students. From freedom of religion soon to equality for women and other races, universities expanded their doors to a wider range of students. As much a forefather as Jefferson himself, the University of Virginia developed the educational standard for universities today and generated equal opportunities for dissimilar people.




The First Steps Towards Educational Diversity: University of Virginia


Page Author: Amanda L. Wiant

Sunday, 4 March, 2012 19:38



Adams, Herbert Baxter. Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2006. Reprint.

Barton, David and Mark Beliles. "Thomas Jefferson and Religion at the University of Virginia." Wall Builder Feb. 2009. Print.

Cabel, Joseph Carrington and Thomas Jefferson. Early History of the University of Virginia. Richmond, VA: J.W Randolph, 1856. Print.

Holtz, Adrian Augustus. A Study of the Moral and Religious Elements in American Secondary Education Up to 1800. Charleston, SC: BiblioBazaar, 2009. Reprint.

Levy, Leonard. Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side. Chicago: I.R. Dee, 1989. Print.

Newman, John Henry. The Idea of a University. Binghamton, NY: Vail-Ballou Press, 1996. Reprint.

Shannon, Edgar Finley. The University of Virginia: A Century and a Half of Innovation. New York: Newcomen Society in North America, 1969. Print.

Stone, Darwell. Outlines of Christian Dogma. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1903. Print.


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