A Patriotic View of Education

by Dr. Andrew Kelley, Professor, Jackson State Community College 

          In his January 6, 1816 letter to Colonel Charles Yancey, Jefferson wrote, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be…. Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe.”   

            His proposed Diffusion of Knowledge Bill of 1779 reveals that Jefferson viewed the humanities as a defensive weapon of a free people. He maintained that education could serve “to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large and more especially to give them knowledge of those facts which history exhibits, that possessed thereby of the experience of other ages and countries, they may be enabled to know ambition [i.e. lust for tyrannical control over the people] under all its shapes, and prompt to exert their natural powers to defeat its purposes.”                                                                                                                            

          Concerned also with education as character development, Jefferson wrote to Joseph C. Cabell, in 1818, “If the children are untaught, their ignorance and vices will in future life cost us much dearer in their consequences than it would have done in their correction by a good education.” He believed in “a system of primary or ward schools, and an [sic] university where might be taught, in its highest degree, every branch of science useful in our time and country”. Jefferson used the term “science” in the original Greek sense of “knowledge”, and he was a champion of education for the poor as well as the wealthy.

          Jefferson’s position on education as a necessary condition of freedom extended to freed slaves, as evidenced by the following quotation from the on-line Library of Congress manuscript collection of Jefferson’s documents:  

          In writing to Robert Pleasants, a Quaker, Thomas Jefferson suggested that the Virginia government create a public educational system for slaves based on his 1784 plan “for the more general diffusion of Knowledge” as one step in preparing them for freedom. Jefferson proposed that Pleasants introduce the legislation urging that instruction be provided for those slaves “destined to be free” and noting that “Ignorance and despotism seem made for each other.” Such a measure was proposed as an amendment to a bill but was taken out before the legislation passed.

          A Renaissance Man knowledgeable in agriculture, architecture, education, geography, law, music, and science, as well as advocate of public education for children, and founder of the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson envisioned a classical education consisting of the humanities as well as “useful sciences”. While the “useful sciences” would ensure freedom from poverty and advance the level of civilization, the humanities would ensure freedom from tyranny. Like virtually all people of his time (and of today), he thought everyone should have job skills, but employment without the freedom that comes from education would not have been acceptable to Thomas Jefferson, an American patriot.