Far from being the right-wing, gun-toting, fundamentalist Christian libertarian he is made out to be by the Glenn Becks of this country, Thomas Jefferson is the spiritual fountainhead of American education.

Far from being the right-wing, gun-toting, fundamentalist Christian libertarian he is made out to be by the Glenn Becks of this country, Thomas Jefferson was the spiritual fountainhead of American education.

Thomas Jefferson’s gravestone reads:

Here Was Buried
Thomas Jefferson
Author of the
American Independence
of the
Statute of Virginia
Religious Freedom
and Father of the
University of Virginia

These words were chosen by Jefferson himself. They reveal what Jefferson was most proud of. Nowhere does it say Minister to France, Secretary of State, Vice President, President, Humbler of the Barbary Coast, Purchaser of Louisiana or Founder of the Republican (later Democratic) Party, even though these are some of the things for which our textbooks celebrate him.

“Father of the University of Virginia” has a place underneath “Author of the Declaration of American Independence.” Jefferson’s work in the field of education is eclipsed by his other mammoth accomplishments not to mention his affair with Sally Hemings, the woman he held in bondage for so long. Yet the University of Virginia was never eclipsed in his own mind.

It is instructive that the man himself was so proud of the University of Virginia. According to the university’s website:

Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia in 1819. He wished the publicly-supported school to have a national character and stature. Jefferson envisioned a new kind of university, one dedicated to educating leaders in practical affairs and public service rather than for professions in the classroom and pulpit exclusively. It was the first nonsectarian university in the United States and the first to use the elective course system.

Jefferson wished to draw the brightest youth to Virginia so they could be educated to serve the fledgling republican (small “r”) nation. In 1800, Jefferson wrote of his vision for such a university:

“We wish to establish in the upper country of Virginia, and more centrally for the State, a University on a plan so broad and liberal and modern, as to be worth patronizing with the public support, and be a temptation to the youth of other States to come and drink of the cup of knowledge and fraternize with us.”

Therefore, it would be a public university funded by public money to serve a public purpose.

The foregoing should act as a caution to all of the so-called education reformers. Jefferson was proud of creating a publicly-funded university to serve the public interest. The current wave of creating privately-run charter schools would have probably struck him as counterproductive to the public good. The notion that the function of school is to produce workers to benefit private capital he would have probably found anathema.

It is true that Jefferson’s vision was what some might call “elitist” today. The University of Virginia was not for everyone, just the “brightest” youth (not to mention male and white). These “brightest” most likely would come from well-off families whose children could afford the time for idle study rather than the backbreaking work of farming that was the occupation of most Americans at the time. By our standards the University of Virginia’s mission as conceived by Jefferson was elitist and narrow.

But by the standards of his time Jefferson’s vision exemplified republican egalitarianism. Rather than birth determining how far one could rise, like it did in Europe, Jefferson saw a country where people rose according to their abilities. The University of Virginia reflected the Jeffersonian ideal of a meritocratic republican society.

By the time Jefferson founded his university in 1819 he was already an American icon. He had served two terms as president between 1801 and 1809 in which his greatest accomplishment, the Louisiana Purchase, ended up doubling the size of the United States. Today’s school children learn that the Louisiana Purchase was born out of America’s desire for the port of New Orleans, Napoleon’s need for cash and Jefferson’s willingness to push presidential powers to the limit to further the young nation’s interests. All of this is true but it certainly is not the whole story.

The title of Gordon Wood’s most recent book Empire of Liberty, which covers the early days of the American republic, is lifted from Thomas Jefferson. One of Jefferson’s goals for the Louisiana Purchase was to divide the territory bought from Napoleon into individual plots to be sold to American homesteaders at cheap prices. He hoped it would draw the growing American population out west and ensure that every American would own a certain minimal piece of land. This type of economic equality was necessary for political equality in Jefferson’s view. Enormous concentrations of wealth, which he saw as a tendency of the proto-capitalist system emerging in the north at the time, was anathema to a Jeffersonian republic of equal citizens.

Along with these homesteads, Jefferson hoped to reserve land in the new territory for public schools. He dreamed of a school system accessible to all (white male landowners) where people would be educated in republican virtues and Enlightenment thinking. These schools would instill a set of republican core values within the population and ensure the continued survival of republican government. Jefferson dreamed of a public school system that was a civic institution. This, along with cheap land, would be tremendous steps towards making all people equal, thereby fulfilling the promise of his Declaration of Independence.

Jefferson hoped that after a generation of homesteading and public schooling the population would be firm believers in equality. A continent of free and freedom-loving Americans united by common values, language and customs was Jefferson’s dream of an “Empire of Liberty”. Such an empire would have no use for a central government. Jefferson hoped that the state would no longer be necessary after the people were sufficiently “equal” and republican. At the very least he envisioned an American continent of 4 or 5 smallish countries living in peace due to a common belief in republican equality. Schools were to be an integral part of Jefferson’s Empire of Liberty.

While Jefferson certainly is not the first American to articulate a vision of public schooling he was probably the most important. The Pilgrims who landed in Massachusetts made public education a centerpiece of their “city upon a hill”. Under British rule, the Anglican Church established schools throughout the colonies to ensure loyalty to British institutions. Jefferson is important because his was a vision of schooling uniquely American, embodying American values as he saw them. We can never totally ignore nor totally escape the Jeffersonian influence upon our education system.

But that has not been from a lack of trying. Self-styled school reformers of our age prey upon public assumptions of what schooling is: a way for Americans to learn skills so they can “get a job” thereby keeping America “competitive” in a “globalized economy”. Essentially, schools are seen as the handmaiden of capital producing cheap labor for those who own the capital. This is why the reformer program of privately-run charters and results-based education (as measured by standardized testing) have resonated for so long.

This is because the school system as we know it today was largely the brainchild of capital. It was the Carnegies and Rockefellers of the world, the first generation of capitalists, who lobbied for the creation of a public school system. It was seen as a way to save the capitalists the trouble of training the workforce themselves. They found ready allies in nativist Americans who were put off by the strange new immigrants entering the country around the turn of the 20th century. For them, schools were a way to train the children of immigrants in American values. The nativists were closer to the Jeffersonian ideal of schooling than the capitalists.

In 2013 it is safe to say that the capitalist influence has won. The biggest engines for reform are modern-day tycoon families with names like Gates, Broad and Walton. The language they use to describe schools reflects the jargon of an economics classroom, as do the charts they use to measure the learning process. Education reform as we know it today can be seen as an effort on behalf of the capitalist class to press their claims regarding the school system to its ultimate conclusion.

If the corporatists win the battle for our public schools then Jefferson’s vision of schooling dies. Jefferson was a champion of publicly-funded schools serving the public good for an egalitarian republican nation. The reformers see the public good in terms of what is good for the corporate class. The nation, republican values, egalitarianism are anathema to them.

And why shouldn’t they be? Modern-day corporatists know no nation. They move money and jobs around the globe with ease no matter what impact that might have on the United States, not to mention the rest of the world. Republican values are seen as a threat to the corporatists since it might stir up the citizenry enough to demand the government curb the abuses of capital. Egalitarianism might as well mean pure “socialism” to the corporatists who wield their influence over the state to create a wholly stratified nation.

Jefferson is the biggest enemy of corporate school reform.

Those of us who oppose the corporatist takeover of our schools should draw from the deep Jeffersonian reservoir. He reminds us that schooling does not have to be about myopic policies to foster “achievement” and “competitiveness”. He reminds us that schools were a way to put all people on an equal footing, With the moral progress we have made since the time of Jefferson, equality has come to take on a much broader meaning. His equality was one between white males. We know now that we have the tools as well as the duty to broaden the meaning of equality, taking it places that Jefferson himself dared not dream.

Public schooling should be a civic institution that helps bring that most perfect of Jeffersonian documents to fruition. Public schools should be part of a grand project to fulfill the Declaration of Independence, the accomplishment Jefferson himself was most proud.

These are the ideological foundations for the backlash against corporate school reform. Look to Thomas Jefferson and then go beyond the limitations of his era.


  1. A very enlightening post: thanks for sharing.
    Best regards from southern Texas,


  3. I am considering doing a paper on education reform prior to 1865. This was a great article. Might you have suggestions as to where I could find sources for this topic? I will probably narrow my topic to Thomas Jefferson’s reform of education in Virginia… Thanks a lot. And again… Killer post!

    • Thanks for stopping by Matthew.

      Some good sources are:

      a) Empire of Liberty by Gordon Wood


      b) American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph J. Ellis

      While they do not focus on Jefferson’s reform of Virginia education per se, both of those books certainly have lots of info about it.

      Hope that helps. Those are the books that I remember off the top of my head. Let me know if you need more.

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