PREREQUISITE FOR DEMOCRACY:
THOMAS JEFFERSON'S VISION OF
FREE SCHOOLS IN A REPUBLIC
William C. Patrick
B.A., Political Science, University of Missouri, St. Louis, 1992
B. A, Philosophy, University of Missouri, St. Louis, 1992
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
This thesis for the Master of Arts
William C. Patrick
has been approved
Patrick, William C. (M.A., Political Science)
Prerequisite for Democracy: Thomas Jefferson's Vision of Free Schools in a Republic
Thesis directed by Professor Mike Cummings
This thesis concerns Thomas Jefferson's understanding of the relationship between
democratic government and public education. It is an analysis of his practical
proposals and his philosophical beliefs. Through this analysis, Jefferson's holistic
approach to theory and practice is revealed. It is argued that Jefferson, through a
dialectical process featuring, among other things, his educational proposals and his
relationships with indigenous peoples of North America, advances beyond some initial
contradictions within the democratic form of government created in the Constitution.
The key features of the analysis are then applied to some contemporary issues in
America related to democratic government and public education. Of special
significance is Jefferson's holistic vision applied to today's understanding of the
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidate's thesis. I recommend
2. PLAN FOR AN EDUCATED CITIZENRY................................7
Proposals and Legislation for Education.................8
A Free Press...........................................20
The Free Exercise of Religion..........................21
3. PHILOSOPHICAL PRINCIPLES AND ASSUMPTIONS.....................24
Psychology and Human Nature............................25
Ends of Society and Government, and Political Obligation.36
Structural Characteristics of Government...............42
4. FREE EDUCATION AND DEMOCRACY TODAY...........................50
Part 1: Holistic Aspects of Jefferson's Understanding of Democracy
Part 2: Aims of Public Education.......................57
Part 3: Education as Public............................63
5 SUMMARY AND CONCLUDING REMARKS...............................68
At issue in America, since the Declaration of Independence and before, is the
relationship between democracy and education. Thomas Jefferson, the successful
democratic revolutionary, realized that a system of self-government would have many
new and continuing requirements. Practical, philosophical, and persuasive leaders
were one requirement, and free public education another. Jefferson's vision of free
schools in a republic was shaped by a life of careful theorizing and practical politics, a
democratically vital, but rare combination of talents.
Jefferson observed that education cannot give students the power of intelligent
choice unless there are real opportunities for them to make intelligent choices. A
truism perhaps, but not when understood within the relative world of self-government
that Jefferson envisioned. In that system of ward democracy, citizens are responsible
for making the cornerstone decisions directly affecting their lives. Many of those
cornerstone choices go well beyond citizens' daily concerns into the realm of complex
societal and economic forces. An education to the level of skillful literacy, knowledge
of history, and familiarity with the processes of democracy are all required for each
voter to understand these complex societal and economic forces.
Writing to George Washington from Paris on January 4, 1786, Jefferson said,
"It is an axiom in my mind that our liberty can never be safe but in the hands of the
people themselves, and that too, of the people with a certain degree of instruction.
This it is the business of the state to effect and on a general plan" (reprinted in
Dumbauld 93). Below is a presentation of the statesman-philosopher's vision of
education and democracy. A key purpose of presenting Jefferson's understanding of
the relationship between education and democracy is to demonstrate how his
theoretical proposals guided the formulation of the practical ones and how the
theoretical ones emerged out of his philosophical beliefs (Heslep 87). Further, an
understanding of Jefferson's vision of free schools in a republic might help mediate and
resolve some of today's debates, and raise others over insuring the success of
American education and democracy.
Contemporary debates on education often raise classical questions about the
ends of society and government. Raising such questions, the topic of education is one
of those areas of inquiry that compel one toward an understanding of the dynamic
forces at play in society, while requiring the formulation of explicit expectations for
the role of education in the society. Explicit ideals can then become practical aims as
people look for ways to fulfill their expectations. The better the understanding of
societal forces is, the more realistic the expectations are. The more realistic the
expectations are, the more likely they are to be realized. Jefferson's importance lies in
his clear understanding of society, in the realistic ideals he proclaimed for America,
and in his ringing insistence that without energetic attention paid to education such
ideals are foredoomed (Lee 23).
So what makes this paper different from other works on Jefferson, democracy,
and education? Two things. First, it focuses on Jefferson's entire vision for the young
United States. His vision included a process of smooth and continuing change,
wherein citizens held explicit liberties to think for themselves. He saw economic
forces in relation to democratic ones. And he saw free, public education as the
prerequisite for democracy. While other works on Jefferson, education, and
democracy have done a good job of synthesizing his entire vision, they have not
considered all the facts, or their emphasis lies elsewhere. One fact that none have
covered is Jefferson's formative relationship with the indigenous peoples of North
America, the Indians. Another aspect of Jefferson's public life not considered by other
writers is his open-minded, eclectic style that results in an advanced comprehension of
social forces. This advanced comprehension is an example of the dialectical process,
as described by Hegel.
In the second place, this paper will apply the riches of alert inquiry to
tomorrow's problems for democracy and education in America. The reader can of
course place an exact value on those riches. Chapter Four looks at today's
expectations for education and the relationship education has to the political
psychologies common in America.
Chapter Two, "Plan for an Educated Citizenry," is a historical survey of
Jefferson's legislation for a system of public education, both presented and enacted,
and his other educational letters, writings, and proposals. Chapter Two serves two
purposes. First, a historical survey provides a simple and straightforward account of
Jefferson's proposals for free public education in a republic. Second, the chapter
shows his practical approach to making free education a reality.
Among his central proposals, Jefferson suggested that education be the
business of the state. According to his "Bill for the More General Diffusion of
Knowledge" presented to the Virginia Assembly, all citizens would receive three years
of schooling in reading, writing, ciphering, and history. An underwhelming ideal for
any society committed to education today, but during Jefferson's time educational
opportunity arose only in direct proportion to family wealth, not intelligence or a
desire to learn (Heslep 22). There were no public schools.
"Jefferson married [his] ideas with action, he worked constantly to clothe them
with the flesh of concrete applicability" (Lee 13). His expectations were always high,
but always practical. The historical survey reveals the watchful eye Jefferson kept on
the political landscape and his precise planning and careful revisions of expectations
Chapter Three, "Philosophical Principles and Assumptions," provides an
account of the theoretical beliefs from which Jefferson's proposals and practical efforts
emerged. Beginning this chapter is an account of his beliefs on psychology and human
nature. Then, the chapter summarizes Jefferson's ideas on the proper ends of society
and government, and political obligation. The United States Constitution is known as
a system of checks and balances, and the third part of Chapter Three focuses on
Jefferson's views on the proper structural characteristics of government and
education's role as, perhaps, a fourth check on a tripartite system. Summing up this
chapter is a look at Jefferson's thoughts on economics.
Beyond the philosophical underpinnings, Chapter Three discusses Jefferson's
most basic expectation and ideal for the young democracy. To George Wythe, August
13, 1786, Jefferson wrote, "I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is
that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can
be devised, for the preservation of freedom and happiness" (quoted in Arrowood 22).
A careful look at Jefferson's beliefs helps reintegrate a once coherent vision of
freedom, equality, and the pursuit of happiness, now vague and often conflicting
One major theme, that of ensuring a continuing revolution, runs throughout
Chapter Three. From the perspective of Jefferson's educational thought, there is one
major difference between a popular uprising establishing self-government, and feudal
or monarchical overthrows. The popular uprising is just the initial step toward, as the
revolutionaries hoped, a continuing process of self-rule. Rebellion for self-rule only
begins with war "... because the generation which commences a revolution can rarely
complete it ... A first attempt to recover the right of self-government may fail. . but
as a younger and more instructed race comes on . one of the ever renewed attempts
may succeed" (Jefferson to Adams quoted in Hellenbrand 11). A continuing
revolution does not just relate to America as a nation, it also relates to persons and the
processes of individual development. "The fulfillment of human destiny, therefore the
divine purpose for man, involvefs] a process of continual development, of ceaseless
change" (Lee 13). The twentieth century has seen an intellectual revolution of its own,
as theorists have shown human psychology to be in a state of relativity. Though the
knowledge is now commonplace, Jefferson, two-hundred years ago, recognized how
the right environment plays a part in people having a fulfilling life. This theme has
remained central to philosophical works on democracy and education.
In Chapter Four we will see that some of Jefferson's ideas form the core
features within many successive works on democratic government and public
education. John Dewey, Harvard philosopher and author of Education and
Democracy, set the standard for the subject in 1916, when his book was first
published. In this chapter, three features of Jefferson's vision for free schools in a
republic are compared to Dewey's understanding on the topic. What we find is that
the two men thought alike in terms of a belief in a holistic, or non-dualist philosophy,
in their characterization of good aims in education, and on why education ought to be
the business of the state in a democracy. An analysis of a contemporary issue follows
each discussion of these three core features. Following the discussion of holistic
philosophy, is an argument against commercial advertising in schools. A consideration
of the proper role of technology in the classroom follows the discussion of good
educational aims. Finally, the vouchers proposal gets an unfavorable review following
the discussion of why education ought to be the business of the state.
Finally, Chapter Five brings the paper to a close with a brief summary and
some concluding remarks. These remarks center on the relationship between public
education in a democracy and political rebellion, criminal acts, and so-called apathy.
Jefferson was a revolutionary. As a revolutionary, we can assume with at least a small
measure of certainty, that Jefferson had a strong understanding of what leads people to
revolt against the status quo, strongly dissent from it, criminally disregard it, or fail to
participate in it. Naturally, most American citizens are dissatisfied, to some degree, by
public and private institutions directly affecting their lives. This dissatisfaction is
natural because we can almost always find better ways of doing things. But something
(or some things, to be sure) is related to how Americans emote and express their
dissatisfactions through such a wide range of feelings and actions. In the U.S. today,
those emotions generally range from healthy empathic responses and legal activism, to
cynical, stoical, depressed, and narcissistic feelings, sometimes expressed by violent
acts. Chapter Five is concerned with trying to understand how and why such a wide
range of responses exists, with respect to democracy and education. The key to
understanding will be provided through the analysis of Thomas Jefferson's vision of
free schools in a republic.
PLAN FOR AN EDUCATED CITIZENRY
Forty years of effort and planning by Jefferson create the setting for the
following historical survey of his legislation and proposals. For Jefferson, free public
education was a.prerequisite for democracy, the key method for developing citizens
capable of self-government. Free education, however, could not work alone in
creating illuminated citizens. They would need other prerequisites for self-
government: a free press, the free exercise of religion, and economic opportunity.
Jefferson's plan for educating citizens who could then conduct themselves in a
democracy included all these things and is the subject of this chapter.
Four characteristics dominate Jefferson's plan for public education. Primarily,
he sought education as a basis for his doctrines in philosophy, and as part of a holistic
system of society and government. His system was . . not for nationalism, but the
means by which people should come to know their rights, control their government,
and so to maintain their liberties (Arrowood 49). Free, publicly funded schools are
another major characteristic. Universal elementary education was to be free for all
free citizens, and secondary and university education was to be free to the most
talented of those who could not afford it, people Jefferson called the "natural
aristocracy." A third major feature is how Jefferson sought a system free of church
influence and control. Jefferson, a spiritual man and not an atheist, was committed to
many teachings of Christ, especially those on morality. But ecclesiastical control
through the public education system would, thought Jefferson, convey a particular
spiritual bias and muddy the understandings of Christ more than clarify them. Finally,
Jefferson's proposals rely on his. ability to combine a radical vision with a practical,
eclectic style that avoids some of the risks taken when implementing new policies.
First, this chapter looks at Jefferson's proposals and legislation for education.
Following the educational proposals is a summary of Jefferson's plan for a free press
where citizens would read from newspapers as part of a public discourse, and perhaps
contribute to it. Free to scrutinize government in a public forum, citizens, according
to Jefferson, should also be free from ecclesiastical control. The last part of this
chapter looks at Jefferson's successful effort guaranteeing the free exercise of religion,
again as a part of his larger plan for an educated, free-thinking citizenry. For the
larger purposes of this paper, it is not important for the reader to follow exactly the
series of letters and proposals described below. The main purpose is to uncover the
main details and to get a glimpse of Jefferson's practical side.
Proposals and Legislation for Education
As a member of the House of Delegates of Virginia, Jefferson made his first
major public proposal for education to the Virginia Assembly in 1779. Titled Bill 79
for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge (reprinted in Conant 88), the proposal
begins with an explanation of the assumption it carries, that power corrupts.
Preventing corruption in government, the bill explained, is best done by providing for
illuminated citizens. Then, Jefferson stated simply that good laws require good law
makers. Those with the natural capacity for law making should, through a liberal
education, gain the ability . . to guard the sacred deposits of the rights and liberties
of their fellow citizens . . (Ibid 88). Ability should determine a person's role in
society, not wealth, birth, or any other arbitrary criteria. Comprising a natural
aristocracy, these potential leaders . should be sought for and educated under the
common expense of all. . (Ibid 88). Primary school education would be offered to
all children of free citizens with free tuition for three years. Not included were
children of slaves. Students could continue on in grammar school, the next level of
education, following their three years of primary schooling, but it would be at their
private expense and only go as long . . as their parents, guardians, or friends shall
think proper (Ibid 89). Next in Bill 79, Jefferson proposed a curriculum for primary
instruction as a training in reading, writing, and common arithmetic. With the same
texts used to teach reading and writing, students would receive, simultaneously, an
education in Grecian, Roman, English and American history (Ibid 89).
While Bill 79 provided for the free education of all free citizens, it also
proposed a system for selecting the natural aristocracy. In September of each year,
an administrator was to go to each of the primary schools. At the school he would
select the most promising student from among the boys who had been there at least
two years and did not have the means to pay for further schooling. The selected
student would then be sent to the grammar school at the public expense for at least
September was also to be the month of selection in the grammar schools,
which, as designed, are comparable to today's college preparatory or high schools.
From among the boys who had been there one year, the least promising one-third
would be selected out. From among the boys who had been there two years, one
would be chosen to continue at the public expense as a senior for another four years.
Every year, one senior would be chosen to attend the College of William and Mary,
again at the public expense, for three years. Also in Bill 79 were administrative and
funding specifics for building, maintaining, operating, and staffing the many primary
Bill 79, in itself, does a good job of conveying the key features of Jefferson's
educational proposals. Those key features being, 1) free education to all free citizens,
and 2) free education for the natural aristocracy, the brightest of the students who's
families could not afford advanced education. What Bill 79 does not convey is the
artful technique Jefferson used to present his proposals, the way he reconsidered and
revised them, and his eclectic style of advancing them. One other component not in
Bill 79 is Jefferson's successful proposal and creation of the University of Virginia, a
The final arrangement came on September 7, 1814, when Peter Carr received a
letter from his uncle, Thomas Jefferson, outlining an educational plan (reprinted in
Conant 112). This new plan, outlined to Carr, contained some changes to Bill 79.
Jefferson was already in his second retirement, after serving as President of the United
States, but he stayed in politics, winning election as Trustee of Albemarle County in
1814. Then, on October 24, 1817, the new plan was combined, with some other draft
bills for creating colleges and a university, into Jefferson's Bills for Establishing
Schools, Colleges, and a University of 1817 presented to the Virginia Assembly
(reprinted in Conant 121). Thirty odd years had passed since he had presented Bill 79.
Jefferson spent those years refining his views on education and watching the political
scene with respect to the opposition he faced in the Virginia Assembly. Before a
summary of this letter to Carr is a survey, spanning the thirty-some year gap, of
Jefferson's letters on education.
In Notes on the State of Virginia (portions reprinted in Conant 94), Jefferson,
between 1781 and 1785, took a more academic look at Bill 79, his famous, but failed
Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge. He began the Notes when
elected Governor of Virginia in 1781, and finished them when he was appointed
United States Minister to France in 1785. The analysis within the Notes supported
and strengthened Jefferson's original plan in some places, and forced him to alter it in
others. In support, he defended keeping the Bible and Testament from the hands of
impressionable children. Children, he thought, could not yet grasp the significance of
the many interpretations of Christianity. Jefferson, in revising the original proposal,
expanded his view of the importance of history in elementary education to enable
[citizens] to judge of the future (Ibid 95).
Jefferson wrote a letter to George Washington from Paris, January 4, 1786,
still hopeful of reviving Bill 79 (reprinted in Conant 97). With some positive changes
in Virginia's economy (gaining shares in the Potowmac and James River companies),
Jefferson suggested that a good explanation for the previous failure of his own bill for
free schools was the expense, now mitigated. He asked Washington to reconsider Bill
79 in place of Washington's own plan for charity schools, and then went into an
eloquent defense. The subject of the letter is economics, funding being a key
difference between Jefferson's plan and Washington's charity schools. The charity
schools were to be funded by private companies and donations, a funding policy
Jefferson strongly disagreed with.
It is an axiom in my mind that our liberty can never be safe but in the hands of the
people themselves, and that too of the people with a certain degree of instruction. This
it is the business of the state to effect, and on a general plan (Ibid 98) [emphasis
Washington's personal response to this letter is not known, but if the Virginia
Assembly reflected Washington's opinion, then he was not in favor of public funding,
even with the stronger economy.
Jefferson continually looked to improve free public education's chances for
practical success, while continually revising his proposal. He began to see a need for a
public university to reside at the top of a system of public education. To Pictet from
Washington, D.C., February 5, 1803 (reprinted in Conant 104), Jefferson, President of
the United States, reports that
I have still had constantly in view to propose to the legislature of Virginia the
establishment of [a seminary of learning] on as large a scale as our present
circumstances would require or bear. But as yet no favorable moment has occurred
Trying to procure materials for a good plan, Jefferson then asked Pictet for a report
on the branches of science taught in his college, and on administrative concerns.
The idea of a public university gradually increased in Jefferson's larger vision of
education. A public university eventually became part of his bill of 1817, and the only
part he saw through to completion. Virginia needed a public university, Jefferson
thought, because its private institution, William and Mary, fell far short of his
expectations. January 18, 1800 marked the letter Jefferson sent, while Vice President
of the United States, to Joseph Priestley (reprinted in Conant 103). In it he said, We
have [in Virginia] a College (William and Mary) just well enough endowed to draw
out the miserable existence to which a miserable constitution has doomed it (Ibid
103). Jefferson expressed his vision of a university . . so broad and liberal and
modem . . to be worthy of public support (Ibid 103). The first step, he said, is to
obtain a good plan. Concerned primarily with designing a curriculum with the most
effective and efficient professorships, Jefferson asked Priestley to contribute his
Later, in 1814, nearing the 1817 introduction of the new plan, Jefferson was
still concerned with the best organization of a public university. To Thomas Cooper,
August 25, 1814 (reprinted in Conant 111), Jefferson spoke of the need to . bring
the whole circle of useful science under the direction of the smallest number of
professors possible ... (Ibid 112). If the number of professors could be kept low,
then the pay of those present could be kept high, attracting the best minds throughout
Europe and the Americas. Here is another example of the combination of Jefferson's
carefully thought out, perhaps utopian, idea (in this case a public university far more
modem than William and Mary) with his practical efforts (in this case arranging the
curriculum and schedule to be very efficient, thus keeping salaries high and attracting
the best professors).
As previously stated, Jefferson saw his plan for free public education as part of
a larger plan for continuing the revolution and, perhaps, improving the country. By
educating the people and improving their ability to make informed opinions, the
revolution would appear to be the first step toward a true system of self-government.
Among the articles Jefferson felt ought to be in the public care, he included education.
This he explained in President Jefferson's Sixth Annual Message, December 2, 1806
(reprinted in Conant 106). The articles of public care, such as the roads, rivers, canals,
and military, were not proposed to
. . take [the] ordinary branches out of the hands of private enterprise . but
[because] a public institution can alone supply those sciences which, though rarely
called for, are yet necessary to complete the circle, all the parts of which contribute to
the improvement of the country, and some of them to its preservation (Ibid 106).
So far, this survey has shown Jefferson's steadfast efforts to establish free
public education all during his ambassadorship to France and his U S. Presidency. In
1814 he was ready to try again, with a successor to Bill 79. This next try included a
whole system of education, elementary schools through a public university.
Recall Jefferson's letter of September 7, 1814, to his nephew, Peter Carr
(reprinted in Conant 112). Here, he had outlined his latest educational plan. First,
during some prefacing remarks, he summarized part of the approach taken in designing
the plan. Always aware of the specific and idiosyncratic variations of social and
economic forces at play in the young country, Jefferson stated what has become a key
feature of American political thought: eclecticism.
Eclecticism supports a theory with a comparative analysis of responses to
similar circumstances elsewhere, and then applies the best or appropriate features of
those responses to one's own circumstances. It is a way of building on existing
knowledge and reducing risky experimentation. An eclectic approach is still
experimental, and can be disastrous if not grounded by a careful understanding of one's
own particular circumstances. The term "eclectic" can even have pejorative
connotations when applied to someone who picks and chooses practical or theoretical
features simply for convenience's sake, with too little concern for coherent application.
After looking closely at the best seminaries in Europe, and conversing with
leading educators, Jefferson commented on the diversity he found in them. He
thought of that diversity as a reflection of local circumstances. These observations
made, Jefferson said,
I am strengthened in this conclusion by an examination of each separately, and a
conviction that no one of them, if adopted without change, would be suited to the
circumstances and pursuits of our country. The example they set, then, is authority
for us to select from their different institutions the materials which are good for us,
and, with them, to erect a structure, whose arrangement shall correspond with our own
social condition, and shall admit of enlargement in proportion to the encouragement it
may merit and receive (Ibid 112).
One key trait of Jefferson's plan for free schools, and an example of his careful
eclecticism, was his idea that the schools should teach a particularly American
curriculum. While Jefferson looked to European universities for ideas on
administration and courses, he complained that they paid too little attention to the
natural history and cultures of the Americas and Africa (Grinde and Johansen 157).
Jefferson carefully studied American Indian culture and language himself, and his
curriculum for the University of Virginia included courses in American Indian cultures
and languages (Ibid 158). During his move from Washington back to Monticello,
Jefferson lost thousands of pages of work on native languages. Grinde and Johansen
argue, in Exemplar of Liberty, that Jefferson saw the control of school curriculum as
one more way in which Britain attempted to manipulate, or kill, indigenous peoples
from Ireland to Africa to America to wherever Anglo-mercantile cupidity can find a
two-penny interest in deluging the world with human blood (Binger 100).
Elementary schools form the first part of the plan outlined to Carr in 1814. In
a preface to his plan for the elementary schools, Jefferson separated the population
into two classes, the laboring and the learned. Simply put, primary school would
provide the laboring classes with the intellectual tools they need for their pursuits and
duties. For the learned, primary education would provide the foundation needed for
further acquirements. The elementary school curriculum was to be reading, writing,
arithmetic, and geography. To learn the curriculum, all students would get three years
of free tuition. After the three years, those unable to pay for further education, and
not selected to continue at the public expense, would enter the agricultural work force,
or begin an apprenticeship.
Part Two of the plan explained the second grade of education, interchangeably
called the general, or grammar, schools. If one proved himself a part of Jefferson's
natural aristocracy by becoming a promising young mind, or if he could meet
academic standards and pay, he could continue in the general school. Girls could not
continue at the public expense or in the public general schools, but only through
private tutors or institutions. Once in grammar school, the boys were to receive a
three-part curriculum. Language and history, ancient and modem, were the first part.
The second part included math, physics, chemistry, anatomy, theory of medicine,
zoology, botany, and mineralogy. The last part was philosophy, including ideology
and ethics, laws of nature and nations, government, and political economy.
Professional schools followed the general school education. Designed for the
natural aristocracy, professional schools were not for the wealthy class who, .
with a sufficient stock of knowledge, [were free] to improve themselves to any degree
to which their views may lead them ... (Conant 114). Professional schools would
include three departments, fine arts, liberal or practical arts, and theology and
ecclesiastical history. The fine arts department was to teach civil architecture,
gardening, painting, sculpture, and the theory of music. The liberal arts department
was to teach architecture, technical philosophy (now called engineering), rural
economy (now called agricultural science), military science, and medicine. The
department of theology and ecclesiastical history included the law school. Jefferson
held his vision of the professional school to the ideal that it teach each science . . in
the highest degree it has yet attained (Conant 114).
Jefferson's final legislative proposal, in the Bill of 1817 (portions reprinted in
Conant 121), comprised his entire plan for a system of elementary schools, general
schools or colleges, and a university. Below is a summary of the proposal, many parts
of which have already been reported on, but are presented here to show their final
This proposal, though never actualized, divided counties into wards, an
average county containing three. After each county was divided into wards, each
ward was to have a meeting to decide on four variables. Required to attend the
meeting, every resident citizen of the ward (free, white males) would help select the
site of the schoolhouse and the housing arrangements for the teacher. Citizens were
then to figure out the size and structure of the schoolhouse, followed by a
consideration of how to build it. Citizens could either share in the labor and materials,
or pay for the work to be done, each man in an amount proportionate to his taxes.
Finally, the citizens were to elect a warden to direct, superintend, and care for the
schoolhouse of their small, ward community.
For funding the schools, Jefferson proposed that the warders pay for the
subsistence of the teachers (housing, meat and bread) and for the costs incurred
maintaining the schoolhouse. The county was to pay the teachers' salaries, which
Jefferson calculated would amount only to about 1/5 of 1 percent on taxable property.
He considered the money a tax only [i]f tax can be called that which we give to our
children in the most valuable of all forms, that of instruction (Ibid 122). If a
particular ward were overly burdened by children of non-contributors, then the ward,
according to Section Ten of the bill, could petition the county court for assistance.
In a footnote, Jefferson considered the difficult issue of compulsory education
and, within the bill, proposed some basic citizenship requirements. Ultimately,
Jefferson decided against compulsory education. With basic citizenship or educational
requirements in place, he thought that while some parents would keep their children
from attending school, those parents would at least prepare their children for
citizenship. If the children did not get instruction at home, they would simply have to
attain literacy at a later date if they wished to vote. Section Six required that those
mentally competent after the age of fifteen must read and write in some language,
native or acquired, to become a citizen. So, this bill sets a citizenship standard, but it
also provided for children to learn to read and write, with free tuition, to meet the
standard. The bill specifically does not require the children to attend school because,
It is better to tolerate the rare instance of a parent refusing to let his child be educated,
than to shock the common feelings and ideas by the forcible asportation and education
of the infant against the will of the father. What is proposed here is to remove the
objection of expense, by offering education gratis, and to strengthen parental
excitement by the disfranchisement of his child while uneducated (Ibid 123).
While many decisions concerning the specifics of the ward schools were to be
left up to the citizens of the ward, statewide standards were also to be put into place.
County-appointed Visitors would guide teachers in curriculum and measure the
progress of the students, giving the best students honorary marks. Another standard,
stated in Section Eleven of the bill, and most likely a concession from Jefferson,
prevents a teacher from any instruction or exercise . . inconsistent with the tenets of
any religious sect or denomination (Ibid 123).
The bill then required the establishment of colleges and a university. The
colleges, as proposed, would be roughly equivalent to the best in academics within
today's high schools. The arrangement and curriculum of each were based on the
research and theories just surveyed in some of Jefferson's letters. Each state district
was to have a college. Jefferson divided Virginia into nine districts, encompassing an
average of three counties each. Once created, the colleges would teach a much
broader curriculum than the ward schools, nearly the same as outlined to Carr in 1814.
The bill also provides two proposals for turning the College in Albemarle County into
the state university. Jefferson's plan for the state university is outlined in the bill, and
is, again, nearly the same as the plan outlined to Carr in 1814.
The method for selecting the intelligent, but poor, natural aristocracy also
changed little from the plan outlined to Carr. The last section of the bill described the
method for advancing the brightest of the poor beyond the three-year ward school
education. Here, Jefferson had simplified his previous plan. A merit-based system
was to be followed that would, every year, select the two most promising boys of each
ward school for a chance to continue at the public expense. The two boys were to be
picked from among those who had completed the three years of elementary schooling,
and could not afford to continue further. After selection, the two boys, their
qualifications in hand, would attend a meeting with the other boys selected from the
other ward schools of their district. Out of this pool, the officials would select two
boys for college. After five years of college, the best one of the two boys from each
district was to be selected for the university, again at the public expense, to be taught
in a field suited to him.
The most important features of the selection process were that it was a merit-
based system and that the selection criteria were relative to the applicants, not to
another standard. What these features provided was that the wisest of the poor, not of
the entire population, would get further education at the state expense. Such a system
necessarily disturbs a social stratification and mobility system based chiefly on wealth
Considering Jefferson's entire body of educational proposals, he had only
moderate success in his lifetime. The University of Virginia was his only
accomplishment. If his system of free primary schools had been adopted, however, he
might have placed that accomplishment above the creation of the university. To
Joseph Cabell, Jefferson wrote a letter in 1823 stating these feelings (quoted in
Were it necessary to give up either the Primaries or the University I would rather
abandon the last, because it is safer to have a whole people respectably enlightened,
than a few in a high state of science, and the many in ignorance. This last is the most
dangerous state in which a nation can be. The nations and governments of Europe are
so many proofs of it.
A Free Press
A good way to begin this part of the chapter, and to convey the holistic aspect
of Jefferson's plan, is with one of his most famous quotes. In a letter to Charles Yancy
from Monticello on January 6, 1816 (reprinted in Dumbauld 93) Jefferson says,
If a nation ejects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what
never was and never will be. The functionaries of every government have propensities
to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents. There is no safe
deposit for these but with the people themselves, nor can they be safe with them
without information. Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe.
Within this succinct expression, Jefferson showed how he expected an integrated
vision of education and a free press to provide citizens with the skills and information
necessary to command their own liberty and property. Education cannot work within
a propagandized system of information. Nor can a free press enlighten ignorant
citizens. His plan for a free press is summarized below.
From Paris, January 16, 1787, Jefferson wrote to Edward Carrington
(reprinted in Dumbauld 94) to express his understanding of the relationship between
public opinion and government policy. True to form, this understanding shaped
Jefferson's future efforts. Living in Paris, he was very aware of Europeans' opinions
and sometimes pleasantly surprised by them. Following Shay's Rebellion, Jefferson
expected negative criticism from many Europeans because he assumed they would
interpret the event as the kind of mutiny one should expect to occur within a system of
government designed with too many freedoms. But on the contrary, the Europeans
correctly saw that the larger part of the public was on the side of government.
Jefferson concluded from this fact that . . the good sense of the people will always
be found to be the best army.
It was obvious for Jefferson that incidents like Shay's Rebellion were best
prevented by informing the people in full about their affairs. To successfully inform
people, newspapers should be available to everyone, and everyone should be able to
read them. In this vision, the basis for government is the opinion of the people. To
put his vision into perspective, Jefferson said, 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. A bold claim, but as we will see
in the next chapter, Jefferson had strong evidence to support it.
Jefferson suffered from no delusion that just because the press is free, it would
also be accurate. The very champion of the free press was also its loudest assailant.
Returning the favor, the press made wild characterizations of Jefferson as a
presidential candidate. By being a vocal antagonist to untruths in a free press,
Jefferson was performing the role he thought all citizens should undertake, that of
judging for oneself, and therefore censoring lies and hyperbole (see letter to John
Norvell, June 11, 1807 reprinted in Dumbauld 95).
The Free Exercise of Religion
The free exercise of religion and the separation of church and state is included
in this chapter because it reflects so much of the spirit behind Jefferson's faith in
education, and his belief that the people form the only legitimate governmental
authority. So, for the purposes here, the spirit behind Jefferson's proposals and
achievements is more important than the details of insuring religious freedom. Issues
of church and state still rightly concern many Americans, but the central issue that the
state should not sponsor, profess, and enforce the teachings of a state religion is an
issue Americans no longer face.
Within his education bill of 1817, Jefferson included a clause on religion briefly
mentioned in the educational-proposals section above. The details of the clause
express Jefferson's concern with planning a system that would truly foster ffeethinking,
self-governing citizens. The clause stated that no educational exercise inconsistent
with the tenets of any religious sect or denomination should be taught in the public
educational institutions. Also, the clause required that no ecclesiastical official be
appointed as public-education supervisor and that there was to be no professor of
divinity at the University of Virginia. Of course, nothing prevented students from
examining Biblical texts or examining philosophical problems in concepts of God
While he was Minister to France, Jefferson watched from distant shores as his
Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom became law in 1786. He considered this
accomplishment his most important, along with two others: The Declaration of
Independence, and the establishment of the University of Virginia. These three
achievements mark his grave, as he had asked. The statute on religion is a natural-
rights-based argument. In it, Jefferson said God has created the mind and body free
and uses only the influence of reason, and not the power of coercion, temporal
punishments, or civil incapacitation to influence people's opinions. Civil and natural
rights have no.dependency upon opinion, religious, political, or scientific, and using
coercion, therefore, violates such rights.
One other smaller, but still significant, part of Jefferson's plan was to increase
the strength of families. For Jefferson, only families could instill in children, the future
citizens, many key values. British common law set down precedents in procedures of
inheritances that made it difficult for families to fulfill this function. Common law
primogeniture established that the eldest son would inherit all of his father's land and
money. The eldest son, knowing he would inherit his father's assets, could just bide
his time and disregard his parent's teachings. The younger siblings, knowing they
would receive nothing, were likely to become independent at too young an age, and
likewise disregard their parents. Such a law, Jefferson said, undermines the authority
of parents and prevents the broader distribution of wealth. It also buttresses the
British oligarchy, which had once supported monarchy, and might again (Hellenbrand
In Bills 20 and 21, in the Revisal to the Virginian Code (wherein the bill for
religious freedom was also presented), Jefferson sought, and won, the elimination of
primogeniture. As Hellenbrand argues, Jefferson's laws of inheritance and education
had the same goal: to ensure basic equity and to encourage morals, affections, and
obedience first to natural parents and later to the public pater, the state (Ibid 97).
Chapter Two has surveyed some central components of Jefferson's plan for
democracy. While the focus here is on education, it would have distorted an
. understanding of Jefferson's educational proposals to exclude a brief presentation of
his proposals for the free expression of opinions in the press and for the free exercise
of religion and separation of church and state. So far, only a few, short details have
been given about how Jefferson formed his opinions. The philosophical foundations
for his plan are the subject of the next chapter. They are presented following the plan
for education so as not to imply connections that Jefferson did not himself make, and
perhaps would not have intended. With a presentation of his plan in place, we now
turn to a survey of his ideological assumptions, expressed political philosophy, and the
relationship these have to his plan for public education.
PHILOSOPHICAL PRINCIPLES AND ASSUMPTIONS
Jefferson's plan for public education is in place, and we now turn to the
philosophical principles supporting this plan. In the way Chapter Two showed his
practical efforts, Chapter Three will show his efforts for setting down a sound theory.
Arrowood, who wrote on Jefferson and education in 1930, said that "[It is]
virtually impossible to trace the course of the development of Jefferson's theory of
education" (Arrowood 56). Contrary to Arrowood, Heslep argued in 1969 that
previous writers had paid only scant attention to the connection between Jefferson's
proposals and the principles on which they rest (Heslep 5). On the one hand, Heslep is
right that it is far more insightful to look at both the practical and voiced theoretical
tenets with the hope of making strong connections, than simply to restate a few
proposals for public education. On the other hand, since Jefferson did not work in this
mannerwriting a complete treatise on theory and practicefuture analysts should
not put words into his mouth. The best we can do is to survey both aspects, the
practical and the theoretical, and then look for the most promising, general
connections that emerge.
Exploring three general topics, 1) psychology and human nature, 2) the ends of
society and government, and political obligation, and 3) the structural characteristics
of government, this chapter looks closely at Jefferson's philosophical principles from
an educational perspective and with an eye toward spotting his eclectic but holistic
vision. Indians influenced Jefferson a great deal. One major theme running
throughout Chapter Three is the effect Indians had on, not only Jefferson's proposals
for government, but his definition of happiness and his understanding of human
Psychology and Human Nature
To help create a clear, landscape portrait of Jefferson's beliefs on human nature
and psychology, this section is arranged as follows. It begins with the assumptions,
those unavoidable starting places. The section then progresses to the implications
Jefferson drew from his assumptions, especially those related to democracy and
Among the implications, the section focuses in on three characteristics of
Jefferson's views which help fill the landscape portrait with color and light. First, we
will look carefully at Jefferson's notion of a moral sense. People have a moral sense,
Jefferson held, just like the senses of touch and sight. Briefly described in Chapter
Two was Jefferson's notion of a "natural aristocracy." What we see is that this notion
contains some careful theorizing about the natural differences among people, and the
implications these differences have for the community. Finally, Chapter Three
considers Indian influences on Jefferson's political philosophy. In continuing the theme
that Indians, for Jefferson, provided a model society, this section presents a case in
which they provided a model psychology too.
Just after entering the Virginia Assembly late in 1776, Jefferson, along with
Wythe and Pendleton, began work on the revisal to the Virginia Code. Later, in 1786,
while Jefferson represented the States in France, part of the revisal, Bill 82 "for
Establishing Religious Freedom," passed in the Virginia Legislature. Jefferson, in Bill
82, provided a starting place for his philosophy on human nature. In the bill, he said
that "God hath created the mind free ..." It is the mind, and not the will, which
resides at the center of one's opinions and beliefs. Jefferson agreed with Locke here in
suggesting that the mind involuntarily followed the evidence before it, rather than
following the will (Hellenbrand 104). Larger forces, such as a state-enforced religion
and laws contrary to natural rights, can and do tyrannize over one's will, but not
necessarily one's mind. However, one's will can, tyrannically, push the mind into
pretending to believe something contrary to the evidence before it.
Jefferson's major premise supporting his views on human nature operates in a
dynamic environment. The mind is free. But the mind is a passive observer to the
information that the senses provide it. It can freely pursue that evidence and
information, while, simultaneously, it cannot ignore that evidence and information.
Only a person's depraved or dysfunctional will can choose to ignore the evidence
before the mind (Ibid 104). Jefferson could adopt such a belief only by also adopting
certain assumptions of metaphysics. The primary assumption of a system of
metaphysics, as opposed to a nominalist system, is that things in general do exist and
can be known. The nominalist, in opposition, holds that general terms have no
corresponding reality, either in or out of the mind. Heslap argues that Jefferson's
principles of nature rely on a system of metaphysics, but that his practical methods rely
on a nominalist system (Heslap 78).
No such contradiction exists. Jefferson's practical politics were not based on
nominalist assumptions, but his eclectic style might make things appear that way.
Every aspect of Jefferson's vision of government relates to principles of nature
differently, as part of a dynamic system. Jefferson designed his system of education,
for example, to fit the particular circumstances of Virginia, and it appears to exist in
isolation only when One simply reads the bills Jefferson proposed. When his
philosophical principles are also kept in mind, his practical efforts follow quite closely.
Contrary to Hobbes's solitary man and purely contractual justice, Jefferson held
that men must have a sense of social justice (Sheldon 57). In a letter to Francis W.
Gilmer of June 7, 1816 (quoted in Sheldon 57), Jefferson said, "Man was created for
social intercourse; but social intercourse cannot be maintained without a sense of
justice; then man must have been created with a sense of justice." By social justice,
Sheldon argues, Jefferson means more than civility or laws protecting individual rights.
Social intercourse requires an innate ability to understand right and wrong, called the
moral sense (Ibid 57).
An innate moral sense, for Jefferson, was the center of human nature as it
related to society. It fits between the assumptions that, first, people are of a free mind
and, second, they have an innate sense of social justice. The moral sense combines the
innate understanding of social justice with the sensory data coming in, creating a set of
actions to choose from. In an assimilation of several of Jefferson's letters, Sheldon has
summarized Jefferson's definition of the moral sense.
The individual's moral sense, which renders society his natural home, consisted, for
Jefferson, of three distinct but interrelated qualities: (1) the human capacity for moral
choice, or the knowledge of good and evil and the freedom to act on that knowledge in
choosing the good; (2) an innate identification with others, a feeling of sympathy for
others' concerns and sufferings, and a pleasure in the relief of others' pain and their
attaining happiness; (3) from the combination of these two qualities, a natural sense of
justice, making social life possible and beneficial, as this appreciation for justice
allows the individual to feel concern for the good of others and for the whole
community (Sheldon 55-56).
Jefferson posited several other characteristics of human nature. In a letter to
Thomas Law, June 13, 1814 (Heslap 78), he discussed aesthetic taste, the appetites,
and the other five senses. The mind influences the sense of taste, as it does the moral
sense. One's mind analyzes the sensory information and provides a set of choices.
Where the moral sense would then choose from a set of choices for the best moral
direction, the sense of taste chooses from a set of choices for the best aesthetic
judgement. Also within one's nature is a set of appetites that correspond to the
biological needs. These facultiesthe mind, the moral sense, the sense of taste,
empathy and sympathy, and the sense of social justiceuse the tools of memory and
imagination along with the data provided by the five physical senses.
Jefferson placed his idea of a moral sense alongside an innate sense of social
justice. The innate sense of social justice is the measure of the moral sense.
Therefore, the moral sense is not simply relative to every person, but can be judged
and valued by the concern for others and the good of the community. Sheldon argues
that Jefferson was neither a classical liberal, nor a classical republican. He was both.
Jefferson's ideas on human nature prove Sheldon's point well. For Jefferson, life is
guided by a free mind, generally a liberal assumption. Also a liberal assumption is that
people do have an innate sense of social justice, although it often needs a little help in
being recognized. However, the free mind and natural empathic qualities are tied to a
decidedly republican morality. The moral sense, as defined, provides a universal
standard and goal of development. But the standard is created through mechanisms
designed to be responsive to the public will, not ecclesiastical, monarchial, or
aristocratic authority. Jefferson clearly discounts any attempt to justify a particular
self-interest as the standard of morality.
In the same letter to Thomas Law just mentioned Jefferson says:
I consider our relations with others as constituting the boundaries of morality. With
ourselves we stand on the ground of identity, not of relation, which last, requiring two
subjects, excludes self-love confined to a single one. To ourselves, in strict language,
we can owe no duties, obligation requiring also two parties. Self-love, therefore, is no
part of morality. Indeed, it is exactly its counterpart. It is the sole antagonist of
virtue, leading us constantly by our propensities to self-gratification in violation of our
moral duties to others.
The moral sense is a person's highest faculty, but it takes the right environment
and a good education for its development. In the section on the structural
characteristics of government below, we will see how the moral sense is facilitated by
Jefferson's plan for ward democracies, where citizens participate directly in
government. In the previous chapter, on educational proposals (ward schools being
the centerpiece) we saw Jefferson's plan to create smarter, more informed, and
effectively analytical citizens.
Underlying this plan for smarter citizens is the concern for developing the
moral sense in people. Developing the moral sense has nothing to do with
indoctrinating students with a particular morality, however, since state-sponsored
religion was now illegal. Education guided one toward metaphysical truth by
developing the free mind and sense of social justice to a point that people could find a
coherent course of action and call their moral choices their own. Since Jefferson
placed obligation to others as the standard of morality, one could measure the choices
of others, and express the findings freely. While Jefferson wished to empower people
so that they could call their moral choices their own, he also made plans to avoid the
fallacious system of moral relativism. By developing the moral sense in people, and
creating mechanisms such as democratic government with free speech and separation
of church and state, public opinion would gradually climb nearer to objective truth.
Some people, Jefferson saw, completely lacked a certain faculty such as a
strong moral sense or good aesthetic judgement. When this was the case, the
deficiency could be made up, to an extent, by ersatz, or substitute, measures (Heslap
78). Free public education, in coordination with local, community democracy, could
best help bridge the gap left by the deficiency. While some people lack a faculty, other
people are especially gifted. These gifted people Jefferson called the "natural
A summary of Jefferson's idea of a "natural aristocracy" goes a long way
toward an understanding of his assumptions on human nature. Many details
supporting his analysis of the natural differences in people are the same details
supporting his plan for free ward schools and his plan for a system of self-government.
In his "Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge," Jefferson established his
vision for the need to prepare gifted students. In Chapter Two we saw who made up
the natural aristocracy. The "best and brightest" were to be chosen from among those
who had completed the three years of free schooling. Eventually, a few publicly
funded students would graduate from a university education each year.
This proposed educational system addressed the natural differences in people
for three reasons (adapted from Heslep 89-90). First, Jefferson's system for advancing
the most gifted, but poor students, would provide Virginia with a pool of superminds
from which future leaders might be chosen. These people would lead not only
government, but private concerns too. Second, since society needs ordinary workers
as well as bright leaders, workers must also be identified. Through the process of
identifying the best minds, all students' capabilities are measured according to a merit-
based system. Those who made it out of the primary schools and into the grammar
schools, but who did not advance to the university, would provide a pool of potential
teachers. Those who could not afford to attend grammar school and were not selected
to continue at the public expense, would continue in the trades or agriculture. Third,
Jefferson held that citizens have a natural right to develop their faculties to the fullest.
He said that it is the "... duty of Virginia to provide that every citizen in it should
receive an education proportioned to the condition and pursuits of his life" (to Peter
Carr, September 7, 1814 quoted in Heslep 89).
The belief that the process of selecting the natural aristocracy would provide
government leaders, industry heads, teachers, and common workers, rested on a
particular faith in human nature. He thought that if the state would give free primary
education to all citizens and advanced education to the smartest, thus preparing people
for the jobs and duties of democracy, people would then develop a love for the
community and give a lot more in return. The natural aristocrats would surpass the
intellectual capacities of their parents, and their hearts and minds would attach to
Virginia (in Hellenbrand 84). Teachers would have in mind the good of society, not
personal ambition (in Sheldon 66).
Jefferson's beliefs on human nature were his own. While his personal life did
pose some serious contradictions to his philosophical principles, he did not follow
dogmatically the doctrines of any culture, ideology, religion, or philosophy. One part
of Jefferson's life that might help explain where he found his largely original, but at
least very open-minded and eclectic analysis of human nature, is his relationship with
Indians. This summary of Jefferson's association with Indians is adapted from
Exemplar of Liberty, by Grinde and Johansen, pages 155-156.
Peter Jefferson, Thomas's father, was a wealthy landholder who spent his
leisure time working as a naturalist. Indian sachems often stayed at the Jefferson
estate in their travels to and from official business in Williamsburg, Virginia. Thomas
Jefferson wrote to John Adams, in June of 1812, and explained the impact of these
Concerning Indians, in the early part of my life, I was very familiar, and acquired
impressions of attachment and commiseration for them which have never been
obliterated. Before the Revolution, they were in the habit of coming often and in great
numbers to the seat of government where I was very much with them. I knew much
the great Ontassete, the warrior and orator of the Cherokees; he was always the guest
of my father, on his journeys to and from Williamsburg [emphasis added].
Aware of the influence Indians had on his ideas, Jefferson accordingly formulated his
own general opinion of them. In 1785 he wrote,
I am safe in affirming that the proofs of genius given by the Indians place them on a
level with the whites. ... I have seen some thousands myself, and conversed much
with them. ... I believe the Indian to be in body and mind equal to the white man (as
quoted in Grinde and Johansen 155).
In their book Exemplar of Liberty, Grinde and Johansen argue that Native
Americans, particularly in the Iroquois League of Five Nations, provided a model for
creating the United States Constitution. The "structural characteristics of
government" section below, will discuss this point further. For the purposes here, it is
important to note that Jefferson highly revered the kind of psychology generally found
in Indians and the balance within Indian social structures, as well as the governmental
features of the League of Five Nations. For Jefferson, the end of society and
government was the happiness of its citizens. One could not weigh this end without a
firm understanding of human nature as a basis for appraising happiness. Exposure to,
and subsequent respect for Indian cultures helped Jeflerson with insights into what he
perceived as a mostly universal human nature, and a good definition of happiness.
Hellenbrand argues, however, that Jefferson was of two minds about Indians
during the American Revolution. When it came to the practice of war, Hellenbrand
says Jefferson "vilified the Indians" (Hellenbrand 128) in the Declaration of
Independence when he said,"... The merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of
warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions." In
contradiction, Hellenbrand says, Jefferson simultaneously found that the Indians'"...
political and familial manners enacted the moral sense of right and wrong so that their
small societies thrived without any coercive power, without any shadow of
government" (Ibid 128). Hellenbrand claims the white culture shared Jefferson's
contradiction, and in the way an Indian can be both noble and savage, the republican
man can be civilized and corrupt. "In both cases, education could reform the capacity
for destruction and nurture the inclination for beneficence" (Ibid 128).
There is not enough information to validate Hellendbrand's claim, but there is a
grave issue here to be dealt with. According to Hellenbrand's argument, it would
appear that 50 percent of the time Jefferson thought Indians were "savages" and the
other 50 percent he found them to be "noble." The evidence from Jefferson's writings
does not bear this claim out. First, his statement of 1785, that Indians are in every way
equal to whites (just following the American Revolution) shows that Jefferson must
have reconciled this apparent contradiction. In addition, Hellenbrand has taken
Jefferson's statement "vilifying the Indians" partly out of context. The Declaration
was a rabble-rousing document designed to make it clear that it was Britain who
exposed the colonists on the frontier to the Indian "savage warfare." Jefferson's
ringside seat at the Revolutionary War might also have helped him realize that war is
war. A people threatened with total destruction by, not simply a foreign power, but a
completely alien culture, would turn to any methods to win. In fact, the most "noble"
American in history, George Washington, did not conform to the rules of warfare then
followed in Europe. He and the revolutionaries fought through ambush and surprise.
Jefferson was not of two minds about Indians, he knew their situation, their
intelligence, and their strength. But just as he was of one mind in his understanding of
Indians, Jefferson was of one mind about the development of America. Ronald
Takaki, author of A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America, shows how
Jefferson saw one America cultivating and improving the land that lies fallow, and
building modem cities. This vision included assimilating those Indians who would
choose to "advance themselves in civilization" (Takaki 49). Indians who reject
assimilation, Jefferson said,"... will relapse into barbarism and misery, lose numbers
by war and want, and we shall be obliged to drive them, with the beasts of the forest
into the Stony mountains" (Ibid 49). Jefferson even went so far as to blame the
Indians for their own decline. Takaki's work points out that Jefferson claimed that
Indians were "... victims of their own culture, not [of] the decimation of their game to
satisfy the voracious fur trade, the introduction of unfamiliar diseases, the
appropriation of their lands, and the brutal warfare waged against them. (Ibid 47)" An
obvious contradiction has arisen, but not one of a dualist nature as Hellenbrand
claimed. If he was not of two minds about Indians, how else could Jefferson have
overlooked that the Indian culture, society, and psychology he drew from as a model
for his own vision, was created in a dynamic relationship with the very way of life he
was helping to destroy?
Richard Drinnon, author of Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian Hating
and Empire Building, considers just this question in full detail. Drinnon makes a
strong case for the true origin of Jefferson's participation in the attempt to destroy the
traditional Indian Nations. Drinnon's case is clear but detailed and complex, and looks
deaply into the complex man Thomas Jefferson. Part of Drinnon's case shows how
Jefferson had a strong distaste for history. Europe was just emerging from centuries
of arbitrary rule, violent wars between monarchies, and fiiedal oppression. Liberalism,
as Jefferson might have thought, did not emerge out of the European monarchies, it
was a new idea based on science and reason. Therefore, liberal philosophy owed
nothing to recent history. Perhaps Jefferson projected his contempt for European
history onto American Indian history. When Jefferson created the new country, he left
no room for those who wished to remain rooted in the past and to revere the ways of
their ancestors. When his new countiy needed land that was currently used for
hunting by the Indians, the "success" of the new country took precedence.
Productivity was measured by his new standards and farming techniques. Jefferson fell
into a trap that his own eclectic style had set. He had seen and avoided other traps,
but this one caught him and he was unwilling to amputate a limb to save his body.
While Jefferson, in historical perspective, was not the friend of the Indians he
should have been, given their contribution to his own education, this contradiction
goes mostly to one place. That place is Jefferson's moral shortcomings, not his
intellectual ones, nor some kind of dualist state of mind. Argumentum ad hominem
seeks to falsify some claim by citing that claim's dependence on an "illegitimate"
authority. Such arguments are not necessarily fallacies, but they are generally weak.
(By the way, neither Hellenbrand, Takaki, or Drinnon make such a case.) Jefferson
was not true to his own moral principles especially regarding his treatment of Indians
and his owning of slaves. These moral slights are as serious as life and death can be,
and they should be remembered. However, they should not be remembered simply to
discredit Jefferson as a political theorist. In fact, they should be remembered in order
to understand political theory and the history of American politics. America emerged
out of these contradictions and suffers as it still harbors them, but Jefferson's vision of
education and democracy might be the way toward advancing beyond them, despite
them. The Supreme Court of The United States is held to finding direction for the
future through the past, i.e., The Constitution. Jefferson influenced that document
greatly, and writing off his contribution because of his moral shortcomings, as serious
as they were, would be a mistake, as would ignoring them.
Some basic points should be taken from this summary of Jefferson's vision of
human nature. Most importantly, Jefferson saw individual human nature in a dynamic
relationship with the outside environment. This assumption has major implications for
government, education, and culture. For government, Jefferson demanded that it
reflect the will of the people. For education, Jefferson sought a system that would
give individual citizens, free of charge, the power of intelligent choice. And for
culture, Jefferson placed the moral sense at odds with uncritical self-interest.
Also important, Jefferson saw life as a process of ceaseless development.
Sometimes called the pursuit of happiness, the process of development requires the
right environment. Government should not impose any religious teachings, and it
should permit free speech. Education should provide the tools needed for self-
education beyond the formal school years, while culture ought to encourage
development, through the arts and expectations of society. Jefferson was, in fact,
highly critical of most popular fiction of his day, finding it lacking redeeming, or
Jefferson's relationship with Indians is important too. They, in many ways,
provided him with a model psychology, and a model for understanding the pursuit of
happiness. Jefferson was probably very aware of the contradictions between his
understanding of Indians and the US. government policies, some of which he created,
that lied to, stole from, and killed Indians. Jefferson believed his vision of human
nature corresponded with metaphysical truth. The mind sees this truth, and the moral
sense, when developed, guides a person to the proper course of action. Ironically, the
evidence shows that Jefferson's moral sense lacked development too. Jefferson
wanted Indians to succeed as Americans, not as the Indians he drew from. Despite the
contradiction, however, his plan for education and ward democracies, if enacted,
would have been the only and best chance for average citizens to have waged a
successful challenge to the genocide coming in the West.
The Ends of Society and Government, and Political Obligation
What is the good life? This question generally accompanies any consideration
of government. Once it is answered, the theorist applies the definition to potential
social arrangements to achieve this end. Thoughts on the good life usually include a
reflection on the civic responsibilities group members have. Chapter Three concerns
Jefferson's definition of the good life, his understanding of virtue and responsibility,
and the role he saw education playing to help achieve these ends.
Part one of this section summarizes Jefferson's vision of the good life. "Life,
Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness" is perhaps the best-known phrase from the
Declaration of Independence. For Jefferson, the attainment of liberty was the single
most important goal of society (Lee 9), because it is only with certain freedoms that
one can define and pursue happiness.
Part two summarizes Jefferson's notions of virtue and civic responsibility.
Throughout both sections is a discussion of the classical texts from which Jefferson
likely extracted ideas, and some observations he made on Indian cultures. Jefferson's
readings of the classic political texts, and his comparative cultural observations, show,
again, that his eclectic style was open-minded, careful, and designed to prevent the
risky experimentation of purely utopian planning. While Jefferson did avoid purely
utopian planning, his eclectic style, we will see, by arranging observations of what is
possible with a definition of the proper ends of society, did fashion a radically different
vision. Ironically, a radically different vision is the standard definition of "utopian."
We might, therefore, call Jefferson a practical utopian.
Jefferson's letter to Edward Carrington of 1787, is commonly quoted because
it reflects his commitment to liberty. The section universally excerpted from the letter,
with one exception, omits the very evidence Jefferson used to make his claim.
Jefferson: His Political Writings, Representative Selections, the collection of letters
used as a reference here, cuts off right at this important point. Below, is the excerpt
from the letter that conveys the full meaning.
The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, our very first object
should be to keep that right; 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 for a moment to prefer the latter. ... I am convinced that those societies [such
as the Indians] which live without government enjoy in their general mass an infinitely
greater degree of happiness than those who live under European governments.
Exemplar of Liberty is the one exception which includes the evidence. It would have
been a mistake for Jefferson to claim that people would be better off with newspapers
and no government (if they had to choose between scenarios), without providing any
evidence that this would be the case. As we now know, Jefferson did not make this
mistake. We see that Indian cultures, through Jefferson's comparative analysis,
provided the necessary evidence and, perhaps, a model of happiness too.
"The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and
only object of good government" (Jefferson to Republican Citizens of Washington
County, Maryland, from Monticello, March 31, 1809, reprinted in Dumbauld 58).
Jefferson was obviously committed to the care of life, liberty, and happiness. These
were the ends by which to measure the quality of social arrangements and government.
What did Jefferson mean exactly by liberty and happiness, and how did he come to his
beliefs? First, he defined liberty as "unobstructed action according to our will." He
placed limits on this "unobstructed action," those being the equal rights of others.
"Jefferson's understanding of freedom encompasses both the liberal, Lockean ideas of
individual freedom from governmental interference and the classical notion of freedom
to participate in the public deliberation which develop one's highest qualities and
shapes the laws under which one lives" (Sheldon 141). "Hence Jefferson's conception
of freedom is not reducible solely to liberal procedural restraints premised in
epistemological skepticism; rather it contains a substantive quality implying objective
standards of goodness and justice" (Sheldon 143). Indian societies showed Jefferson
the happiness provided through liberty constrained by social custom and responsibility,
rather than governmental coercion. The kind of social or official restraint on liberty
that Jefferson argued for did not limit the freedom of the individual more than it
advanced it, especially within a stable system governing large numbers of people over
an unimaginably large territory. The restraints merely guided individual freedom
toward a set of choices complementing the set of choices others have. Such a system
would also, through public education, exploit the diversity and natural differences in
people. How did Jefferson define the happiness that his arguments for (and restraints
on) freedom promoted?
There is some good evidence about the influence of classical works on
Jefferson's development. Jefferson's ideas on happiness closely follow Aristotle's
"Eudaimonia." The best possible life, for Aristotle, was an active soul following
reason and rational principles. Action, accordingly, did not imply physical
achievement, it meant thought. "Thought was for Aristotle the highest mode of action
and thus the end of life as well as of education" (Hellenbrand 62). While
contemplation provided the highest form of happiness, Aristotle did not deny one's
physical needs or social responsibilities and their pursuits. He did, however, place
them a distant second to contemplation, while Jefferson saw the two as equally
True to his eclectic style, Jefferson did not mirror the ancient philosopher. He
parted ways with Aristotle's thought at one important intersection. That point is
centered on the value Jefferson placed on civic responsibilities and the importance of
political service. Here, as Hellenbrand argues, Jefferson followed Cicero. To the
-extent that Jefferson's political philosophy placed practical emphasis on the knowledge
of politics as a means to practice government, it looked a lot like Cicero's ideas.
Happiness can be found in knowledge and its pursuit, but right action, as defined by
social justice and the moral sense, is another equally important source of fulfillment.
Aristotle did highly value civic participation, but as he saw it such practical action
always suffered from a lack, a need, or a desire. "Rational knowing, on the other
hand, was complete and comprehensive within itself' (Dewey 262). Jefferson's vision,
previously characterized as holistic, assumes a continuity between thought and action,
as opposed to a dualistic separation of the two.
Jefferson's vision of happiness lies in stark contrast to Alexander Hamilton's.
"Instead of the rule of the natural aristocracy of wisdom and virtue, emanating from
participatory ward republics, Hamilton's system, and the perversions it symbolized,
issued for the rule of the stockjobbing herd, reducing public good to the sum of private
goods" (Sheldon 93). This contrast is especially important because it represents an
ongoing debate about the definition of happiness and subsequent implications for civic
responsibility. The ongoing part of the debate (vouchers, etc.) will be saved for the
next chapter, but now we will look at Jefferson's ideas on civic virtue and political
Educating the children is the most important responsibility for the elders of any
society. A generation may be called "parent," only if its children advanced "science
and virtue" (quoted in Hellenbrand 14-15). In Jefferson's system, the responsibility
went beyond the immediate family and the contributions of corporations. The state
should pay for schools. Benjamin Franklin and John Locke both argued that private
organizations should fund schools. Jefferson's plan, in contrast, rests on the public will
whereby skillful citizens proceed on their own with the necessary freedoms and
liberties. This process requires knowledge and skills not innate to the rich or to the
poor. Hence instruction of all citizens up to a minimum level is necessary, while the
best and brightest, regardless of wealth, should be educated to the best of their
abilities. Such a system cannot depend on the wealth and desires of particular
interests; it must depend on public funds.
In Jefferson's Commonplace Book, he noted that in Montesquieu's Spirit of the
He considers political virtue ... as the energetic principle of a democratic republic . .
and shows that every government should provide that its energetic principle should be
the object of the education of its youth (as quoted in Sheldon 64).
Political virtue, according to the classical republican paradigm, is an unselfish concern
for the public good (Sheldon 163). For Plato, a thing is virtuous if it performs its duty
well; a thing's duty is defined, ideally, by philosopher-rulers. For the stoic Cicero,
virtue was essentially military in nature. It involved uncritical devotion and self-
sacrifice. Virtue for Jefferson followed closely the virtue of Aristotle. That definition
places it near the concept of the golden rule. It requires participation in public life, is
generous as opposed to stingy or extravagant, and witty, as opposed to boorish or
buffoon-like (Sheldon 163). Jeffersonian virtue, following Plato, had room for the
differences among people; good workers and good leaders both contributed to the
common good. His concept of virtue, following Cicero, included universal
participation in government, by the workers and leaders. Finally, his concept of
morality, greatly influenced by American Indians, rejected narrow self-interest and
self-love, thus further pinning down a definition of virtue as a commitment to the
common good. Jeffersonian virtue, in a carefully eclectic fashion, combines a series of
narrow definitions into a far more holistic vision. The virtuous citizen is measured by
the quality of his work and his commitment to the common good, not his personal
ambition or success. Also, the virtuous citizen is partly responsible, through
democratic government, to consider for himself the contribution of others.
Intelligent choice by the citizens, who Jefferson believed hold the ultimate
political authority, could occur only through universal, public education. Intelligent
choice, then, was the primary social end of education. Up to this point in history,
however, public education had served those providing it (or proposals were designed
for the benefit of the designers), not those to whom it was provided. As designed by
the Puritans, public education was to support and sustain a theocracy. The Prussians,
through education, wished to support and sustain a stable monarchy. During the 1830
and 1840's, before free public schools, American conservatives wanted education
because they feared the power of demagogues over an illiterate and, therefore,
unpredictable block of urban voters (Conant 37).
The end of democracy and of education, for Jefferson, was the happiness of the
citizens. To define and pursue their own happiness, citizens must have the power, and
the political mechanisms, to make intelligent choices. This power follows only from a
system of education. Education improves or develops the moral sense, aesthetic taste,
and thus, social justice. When formal education is freely provided, in conjunction with
a government responsive to the public will, citizens become committed to contributing
back to the community. Citizens with a developed moral sense and a commitment to
the common good will more likely find happiness, perhaps even the kind of happiness
that is free from any coercive force, such as in the Indian societies.
Structural Characteristics of Government
This paper began with a survey of Jefferson's educational proposals. Since
education is the primary focus here, it made sense to start off with exactly what he
wanted to achieve. Following the survey, Chapter Three has examined the
philosophical basis for such proposals, including Jefferson's beliefs on human nature
and psychology, and the ends of society and government. This last part of Chapter
Three brings the project full circle. It comes back to Jefferson's vision of the proper
structural characteristics of government, including of course, free public education.
The section begins with the types of government Jefferson analyzed, and the societies
he knew. Out of his analysis and observations came a system of ward democracy, akin
to the New England town meeting. As we will see, education is a key part of that
structure, maybe even a fourth check on the three branches of government, the
legislature, the executive, and the judiciary. Economic and market forces play heavily
into the structures of society and government, and the section ends with how Jefferson
dealt with such forces.
Jefferson's major emphasis in designing a system of self-government was to
correct the errors he saw in European systems. At the time, English government only
faintly represented public opinion, and monarchies ruled without check across much of
the rest of Europe. Jefferson considered all monarchies tyrannical systems because
they were legitimized only by force and violence. His criticisms of monarchies
developed fully, and were otherwise confirmed, while he was Ambassador to France
(Letter to George Washington, Paris, May 2, 1788, reprinted in Dumbauld 70). His
ambassadorship provided the comparative details necessary to understand the success
of the American republic, and the failings of the European monarchies. In the same
letter to Washington, Jefferson said that there was not a crowned head in Europe with
the talent or merit to win the smallest election in America. To those in America who
found republican government faulty, he suggested that, since a comparison between
the United States and Europe is like that of heaven and hell, they should go to Europe
to count the "blessings" of monarchy (To Joseph Jones, Paris, August 14, 1787). He
repeated the same sentiment in numerous letters, his basic point being that freedom
and happiness could not be conserved by kings, nobles, or priests. Only the diflusion
of knowledge among the people can preserve their freedom and happiness (To George
Wythe, Paris, August 13, 1786).
Monarchies were very powerful while Jefferson was alive, and that power,
without restraint, might well have slithered its way back across the North Atlantic.
Here lies much of the motivation for Jefferson to maintain repeatedly that, while
America faces problems and Europe has great wealth,
I am convinced that those societies (as the Indians) which live without government
enjoy in their general mass an infinitely greater degree of happiness than those who
live under the European governments. Among the former public opinion is in the place
of law and restrains morals as powerfully as laws ever did anywhere. Among the
latter, under pretence of governing they have divided their nations into two classes,
wolves and sheep. I do not exaggerate. This is a true picture of Europe. Cherish,
therefore, the spirit of our people, and keep alive their attention. Do not be too severe
upon their errors, but reclaim them by enlightening them. If once they become
inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress and Assemblies, Judges and
Governors, shall all become wolves. It seems to be the law of our general nature, in
spite of individual exceptions, and experience declares that man is the only animal
which devours his own kind; for I can apply no milder term to the governments of
Europe and to the general prey of the rich on the poor (Jefferson to Edward
Carrington, Paris, January 16, 1787, reprinted in Dumbauld 66).
Indians' societies provided the comparative evidence for government, just as they did
for a consideration of happiness. When aristocrats, or those in favor of monarchy,
were calling for tighter control, more police, and a larger military, Jefferson could not
simply speculate about the benefits of self-government discovered through political
philosophy. He needed evidence. European governments provided evidence for what
to avoid. The Indian nations were evidence of the ideal. And the United States
Constitution, along with public education and a ward system of democracy, was the
practical attempt at avoiding the bad and aiming for the good.
Indians societies had several exemplary features for Jefferson. As pointed out
by Grinde and Johansen, Jefferson wrote about these features in his Notes on the State
of Virginia. Most importantly, he saw that Indians did not submit themselves to
coercive government. Actually, he said they did not submit themselves to government
either, but by "no government" he could not have meant no social order (Grinde and
Johansen 159). The definition of government in this paper includes both Western
contracts, such as the Constitution of the United States, and value systems and social
mores. It was not simply social conformity, shame, or physical dependency that
Jefferson saw shaping Indian behavior, however. He found their controls to be their
manners and a well-developed moral sense of right and wrong. The same moral sense,
he hoped, would develop from a system of public education in Americans. If the
moral sense fails, and someone commits a crime, Jefferson noted the system of
punishment to follow. First is punishment by contempt, then by exclusion from
society, and in extreme cases such as murder, the punishment is handled by the
individuals concerned. Whatever one thinks of such a system, said Jefferson, crimes
are very rare among the Indians.
Indians had a regular decision-making apparatus, or government, about which
Jefferson wrote. On matters regarding a town or family, the principal men or the
sachem (elected chief) would decide. Matters concerning whole tribes were dealt with
at tribal meetings of all the chiefs of the towns. Issues for the entire nation were
discussed and determined at a national council where the councilors met with the
expectation of reaching unanimity through persuasion and mutual concessions (Ibid
161). These observations influenced Jefferson's proposals for a system of public
education. One major area where this influence emerged was in his idea to create
Ward districts were to be like today's school districts, only with a much smaller
number of students. As explained in Chapter Two, the wards were divisions of
counties. Each ward would provide a schoolhouse and the teacher's room and board.
The system would be responsive to the needs of the individual communities, and the
schoolhouse would be near enough the farms in the ward district so that the children
could get there. Educational efficiency was only the first benefit of the ward system.
Jefferson commented several times that the wards would become the locus of local,
direct democracy. For Jefferson, wards were like the Indian towns, counties were like
the tribes, and states were like the Indian nations. When some proposals were put
forth for enlarging the size of states to be admitted to the union, Jefferson said it
would reverse the natural order of things. "A tractable people may be governed in
large bodies but, in proportion as they depart from this character, the extent of their
government must be less. We see what small divisions the Indians are obliged to
reduce their societies" (Ibid 19).
Economics was a major area of concentration for Jefferson too. Public schools
need funding, but economic forces play a large part in the other structural
characteristics of government. We will begin with economics as it relates directly to
Jefferson's vision for public schools. In the educational-proposals chapter, we saw
that Jefferson planned for the warders themselves to pay collectively, or otherwise
provide for the schoolhouse and the teacher's room and board. Teachers' salaries were
to be paid for by the county, and if a particular ward had trouble paying for its share, it
could apply for county assistance. Recalling Chapter Two, we saw why Jefferson
thought education should be among the articles of public care. In "President
Jefferson's Sixth Annual Message, December 2, 1806" (reprinted in Conant 106), he
said public funding is needed,
[because] a public institution can alone supply those sciences which, though rarely
called For, are yet necessary to complete the circle, all the parts of which contribute to
the improvement of the country, and some of them to its preservation.
Where Jefferson found economic policies contributing to independent citizens he
supported them, and where they detracted from independent, educated citizens he
opposed them (Sheldon 73). Jefferson remarked, "What a cruel reflection, that a rich
country cannot long be a free one" (Travel Notes March, 1788). That cruel reflection
prompted his successful bid to end primogeniture, a law contributing to the
concentration of wealth (as well as other problems). Where education policy was to
provide citizens with the skills to make independent, intelligent choice in the local,
direct democracy and in the larger representative republic, economic policy was to
encourage financial independence.
The ward system that Jefferson proposed really helps display the holistic aspect
of his thought and proposals, or in other words his skill as a practical utopian. Wards
addressed the issue of size and responsiveness. Ward schools were community
schools, where every citizen would gain the basic skills needed for making intelligent
choices. In such a system, people would directly participate in local decision making.
Finally, ward economies would encourage financial independence, making people
interested in public participation.
The next chapter addresses the dissenting citizen, a central concern for an
inquiry into education and democracy. Jefferson's ideal system of government dealt
carefully with dissenting citizens. "I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a
good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical" (To
James Madison, Paris, January 30, 1787, reprinted in Dumbauld 67). He knew first
hand, and commented in the same letter, that unsuccessful rebellion generally reduced
the very rights of those rebelling. Punishment of rebels, therefore, should not be so
severe as to discourage them too much. The same sentiment supports the Bill of
Through his understanding of human nature, developed and supported by his
associations with Indians, Jefferson developed a system of education and government.
The system of education and government was also directly influenced by Indians, but
adapted to the current politics, ideology, and economics in America. This eclectic
style was successful in creating the Bill of Rights and the revised Virginia Code
(wherein primogeniture was ended, and church and state were first separated), but
unsuccessful in creating the ward schools.
A summary of Chapter Three provides us with a basic understanding of
Jefferson's approach to developing a sound political philosophy in dynamic with
practical proposals. As we have seen, Jefferson observed other cultures and nations
from an open-minded point of view with the intention of being objective. His writings
on Indians prove this point well. Real-world observations developed and confirmed
his beliefs on human nature. Fundamentally, he saw one's moral sense as the primary
guide to a course of action, not governmental authority. However, social rules and
customs must be in place to develop and support the moral sense of the individuals.
These real-world observations, combined with basic philosophical principles,
characterize Jefferson's eclectic style. His eclecticism was shown to be the kind of
careful analysis that locates real-world observations into abstract, general principles.
The whole endeavor is an attempt at avoiding risky experimentation without good
evidence for success.
As Hellenbrand argues, Jefferson's philosophical principles rest on the
metaphysical assumption that an objective universe exists and can be known. On the
other hand, Hellenbrand says, Jefferson's practical proposals rest on particular
observations that imply the adoption of a nominalist system wherein there is no
objective reality, either in or out of the mind. In other words, Hellenbrand finds
Jefferson's system to suffer from a basic philosophical contradiction. If there is an
objective universe that can be known, why depend on a particular opinion, custom, or
definition of happiness?
Jefferson advanced abstract, general principles through the direct observation
of particular cultures and individuals. Where the pure metaphysician, such as Plato,
sought the ultimate deduction of reality regardless of public opinion, Jefferson used
public opinion to measure the deduction of reality by the democratic leaders. While
the pure nominalist might disregard abstract principles of morality in favor of "cultural
relativism", Jefferson measured cultures according to abstract principles of social
justice and happiness. Jefferson's plan for education and democracy did not suffer
from fatal contradictions. He overcame apparent contradictions by employing a
particular method of advancing knowledge, the dialectical process. As described so
clearly by Hegel, dialectic is a process of advancing from partial and contradictory
knowledge to a more comprehensive understanding. "... A process in which a new
form of understanding resolves the previous contradiction, each level in turn giving
rise to a more complex form of knowing" (Gadow 597). It is process of the
theoretical and the practical, as well as the historical.
Democracy, as Jefferson thought of it, performed just this sort of dialectical
advance, although he did not use the term. Decisions can be measured and
constitutions can be written, through scientific analysisan attempt at understanding
the objective universe. Accordingly, these decisions are based on more than the
opinion of others, they rest on the metaphysical assumption that there are objective,
static principles that can be known. Ironically, the belief that there are objective
principles allows individuals to formulate a very subjective interpretation of things for
themselves. In other words, objective reality is seen here through the subjective
(according to a one-person-one-vote democracy) interpretation of the individual.
Jefferson's criteria for morality requires that moral decisions must be measured by our
relations with others, duty requiring at least two parties. That morality involves
considering the subjective opinion of others does not mean that it rests on nominalist
assumptions. The general, abstract, metaphysical basis of one-person-one-vote
democracy, where every voter's opinion is heard, is designed to make the process of
discovering objective reality fair. We see here a significant irony in that considering
the opinions of others important in themselves (as subjective as those opinions might
be) is a more objective approach to government, according to democratic principles,
than a metaphysical system such as that within Plato's Republic. No wonder Jefferson
spent his entire life trying to convince others of the need to create free schools to teach
every voter how to meet these apparently contradictory responsibilities.
FREE EDUCATION AND DEMOCRACY TODAY
A picture of Jefferson's vision of free schools in a republic has been illustrated.
Now it is time step back for an interpretive look and to apply the results of inquiry to
today's particular circumstances. I have chosen to look for the general, but significant
features of Jefferson's theory and practicefeatures that stimulate a discussion of
contemporary issues. Previously, I said that some key features of Jefferson's theory
and practice, while perhaps comparatively less developed by him, have become core
pieces in successive works on democratic government and public education. I will
focus on three of these features, the first of which is Jefferson's holistic understanding
of democracy and education, and of theory and practice. Second, I will look closely at
Jefferson's aims for education. And, finally I will look at Jefferson's argument for why
education is the business of the state.
Following, a discussion of each of these three key features is an analysis of
some contemporary educational issues. It is my hope that this method of inquiry might
help clarity, mitigate, or resolve some of these debates. But, if nothing else, the
method should at least demonstrate a useful application of Jefferson's theory, as it has
been illustrated. After the section on the holistic aspects of Jefferson's vision, I will
consider what basic conflicts between competing social forces and values we face
today. A specific and related issue, commercial advertising in schools, is then
considered. Following the section on the aims of education, I will accordingly
investigate some of today's aims and look at a related issue, technology in the
classroom. The third section, education as a public venture, is followed by a look at
the voucher issue.
Part One: Holistic Aspects of Jefferson's Understanding of
Democracy and Education
Jefferson's holistic approach begins with his synthesis of the dominant theories
of knowledge he encountered. John Dewey, author of Democracy and Education,
first published in 1916, set the standard for understanding issues related to public
education within a democratic government. In Dewey's work is a critique of several
theories of knowledge that he found supporting and significantly guiding certain plans
and aims for society and education. Each of these epistemologies has its own
characteristics, but they all have one thing in common; each assumes certain divisions
or antitheses called dualisms (Dewey 333). Dualisms, for Dewey, reflect an inaccurate
understanding of nature and of society. These inaccuracies then lead to unsuccessful
or problematic planing. The theory of knowledge Dewey supports is one of
"continuity." The argument to be made here is that what I have characterized as
Jefferson's holistic approach is a lot like Dewey's continuity.
Dualisms, Dewey argues, stem philosophically from a distinction between the
particular and the universal (Dewey 334). Our experiences deal with the particular,
while our reason and rationality must deal with universal or general principles. This
distinction also arises in debates over empirical and theoretical study, thought and
emotion, and theory and action. Dualistic divisions originate from social conditions
too, as philosophy is also an account of experience. Dewey lists several of these
distinctions "... like those between rich and poor, men and women, noble and
basebom, ruler and ruled" (Dewey 333). As we have seen in the account of his work,
Jefferson deals with many of these divisions, and advances an epistemology of
continuity, or holism, in reconciling them.
Most significant in Jefferson's holistic approach is his synthesis of theory and
practice. Through his eclectic and comparative analysis of other cultures, societies,
and governments, he created sound theories with realistic plans and expectations for
their introduction. He observed the successes and failures of European education and
adapted his own plan accordingly. More fundamentally, he used Indian culture as a
model psychology and to establish a general definition for happiness, the end of
government for him. Indian culture allowed Jefferson to see the possible continuity
between public opinion and government, a system almost absent of crime and
coercion. Thus he claimed that if society should have to choose between newspapers
and government they would be better off without the latter. A dark cloud did develop
over this scene, as Jefferson expected Indian societies to melt into his new America,
and as he played his part in removing the Indian land base just as he removed Indian
remains from a burial mound near Monticello, Jefferson's famous, preserved, and
I addressed two arguments in Chapter Three, both advanced by Hellenbrand,
claiming that Jefferson held dualist assumptions. The first claim I considered stated
that Jefferson was of two minds about the Indians. Put simply, Hellenbrand said that
on the one hand, Jefferson found the Indians a noble people, and on the other, he made
them out as "merciless savages." I said that the evidence could not support this claim.
Although there is no doubt that Jefferson participated in destroying the Indian nations,
his actions were complex and not simply racist, political, or expansionist. Perhaps the
best explanation was that while Jefferson did suffer from moral shortcomings (he did
the wrong thing according to his own principles), his disdain for European history was
projected onto all of history (including that of North America before the Pilgrims) so
he simply expected the Indians to assimilate into the new system and to forget about
their ancestors and their way of life. Ultimately, Jefferson's statement, that Indians
were "in every way equal to the whites," cannot be understood to mean anything else.
He saw the Indians in a full, continuous context, and was not of two minds in his
understanding of their ways. The contradiction, and the mistake, was to force the
Indians into sharing his vision or else.
Hellenbrand asserted, in his other claim, that Jefferson suffered from
contradictions between the metaphysical assumptions supporting his theories and the
nominalist assumptions supporting his plans. As I argued, democratic government is
an attempt at advancing beyond these apparent contradictions in a dialectical fashion.
A democracy is supported by general principles put in place to respond to particular
interpretations, opinions, and situations. Jefferson's plan for education, as part of the
larger plan for a system of society and government, worked to reconcile these initial
contradictions. His plan in no way suffered from them.
In his continual quest for improving, promoting, and implementing his plan for
public education, Jefferson exemplified his holistic approach to philosophy and
practice. The results of his efforts were some radical, but realistic plans for realizing
the promises of the Revolution. Separating church and state was one radical idea;
guaranteeing the right to free speech was another; and free public education rounded
out this radical's vision. In seeing the proper continuity between public opinion and
government, Jefferson proposed a system of ward districts that was to serve two
As developed in his educational bills, the ward districts would contain the
ingredients needed to maintain a school. Teaching every young citizen, free of charge,
reading, writing, ciphering, and arithmetic as a basis for making the decisions each
citizen in a democracy should help make, was the primary purpose of the ward
schools. Each ward district would have a schoolhouse within an easy distance of each
student. The building itself would provide a meeting place for the business of the
community. Also, the small size of the ward districts would allow the teachers to be
very responsive to their students' needs. Ward schools had the necessary ingredients
to pull the community together in an atmosphere of developing and improving public
opinion. As a second purpose, ward districts would create a primary democratic unit
for making the cornerstone local decisions. Local issues, Jefferson assumed, would be
better understood by local people, and not by distant representatives. Local debates
might also stimulate more community involvement.
Today, the holistic vision that education involves the entire environment and is
necessary for good democratic government, has increasingly come into conflict with
the vision that education should serve the economy and place individual students in
training for jobs. These two points are not mutually exclusive, but when they are out
of balance, severe vibrations can ripple through the community like an out-of-balance
tire shaking the steering wheel. For Jefferson, public education was in part a plan to
help develop one's moral sense. While it is a natural ability, the moral sense needs a
little help in development. Its development is vital to democracy because it is only
through a moral understanding that a person can measure his or her contributions,
duty requiring at least two parties. When economic success is too tightly focused on,
as measured simply by comparing bottom lines, it circumvents the moral component of
social life. Hence Jefferson's successful bill ending primogeniture, that law of
inheritance which undermined familial authority. The moral component is the basic
part of civic responsibility in the public sphere and as it fades so too fades the common
Several contemporary American writers have developed the thesis that
individualist values have come into conflict with the larger community. Connecting
the conflict to education has also been done, and it seems to be a part of many debates
in education today. It is a part of the vouchers issue, curriculum debates, single-sex
school issues, even technology issues, and it is a part of advertising in school debates.
For now, I will consider the last. Advertising has entered the classroom just as it has
entered the news media, sports arenas, and households: pervasively. In some schools
corporate fast food like Pizza Hut Pizza is dangled in front of kids as a reward for
reading. Kentucky Fried Chicken is a D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education)
program sponsor. Ed Quillen, regular contributor to the opinion page of The Denver
Post, writes that in the D.A.R.E. program kids do not learn any mere academic
knowledge on drugs, they learn "holistic refusal skillswhatever those are." Quillen
goes on to say that kids might not be learning much about drugs, but they are learning
to recognize the sponsors.
Other examples demonstrate the pervasive entrance of corporate advertising
into schools. Cherry Creek Schools, a Denver area district, has begun selling
advertising on the side of its school buses. Clothing and shoe companies, that have
been placing small logos on the outside of their products for some time, now regularly
silk screen their company name in giant letters across button-down shirts, jackets, and
athletic garments. T-shirts and ball caps were not enough. These logos drift up and
down the halls. "Calvin Klien" is late for class. Adults buy these clothes too, but
"Armani" is not yet being printed along the lapels of corporate executives' suits, and
"Chanel" is not written in six-inch letters across your doctor's silk blouse.
Corporate advertising abounds in schools; but does its presence reflect a
dangerous conflict of values? That question depends on what our aims for education
are (the subject of the following section). But, regardless of particular aims, to the
extent that students are taught by being lured with fast food rewards, they will fail to
learn from curiosity or concern. Learning is not fast and easy as Pizza Hut Pizza is
fast and easy food. To the extent that private corporations control the budgets of
schools through their advertising dollars, the public sphere will vanish. School boards
who argue that advertising dollars help pay for important programs are forgetting that
advertising is done to sell products. If the students are the profitable targets of the
advertising, then it is the students who are indirectly paying for the program.
Advertising in schools must work because a company such as Kentucky Fried Chicken
cannot legally spend money on ineffective advertising. A corporation's fiduciary
obligation to its shareholders forbids such waste.
The individual gain of the corporation is disrupting the collective gain of good
public education. In so doing, corporations limit the students' individual growth and
freedom. The belief that corporate advertising in schools will be a win-win situation
for students and companies is a myth. Advertising works, in part, by targeting a
captive audience. Sports marketing works because people are closely watching the
game and end up closely watching the advertisements too. It works similarly in
schools, but perhaps it is even more pernicious there because children are literally
captive to it, whereas at home one can simply turn off the TV set or head for the
kitchen during the commercials. When students are carefully following the lesson,
they will carefully follow the advertisements that are intertwined. Or the students who
are bored with the lesson can read the logos on shirts, or look at the colorful
advertising that has entered the classroom on posters, in books or educational
Successful advertising, to work best, needs not only a captive audience such as
a football stadium full of spectators or a classroom full of students, it also needs a
captive and passive state of mind. School programs and lesson plans that involve
corporate advertising will likely not stimulate critical, active thinking because that kind
of student involvement would decrease the success of the advertisements. When
students are passively attentive to advertising, they are not likely to be actively
engaged in their school work. If school lessons are computerized, choreographed, and
entertaining, to compete with advertising campaigns for the students' attention, then
students will be passive, uncritical thinkers who are not a part of creating the lesson
plan. I will further develop this passivity problem below in the technology in the
Part Two: Aims of Public Education
It has been said that Jefferson's chief concern was for the attainment of liberty,
a statement true of his motivations for the Revolution, but also for his entire career
(Lee 2). Liberty, Jefferson said, is safe only in the hands of the people themselves
through the processes of self-government. Skills needed to maintain a system of self-
government are not innate; they are developed through education. But it was not
merely a skillful citizen Jefferson envisioned, it was a thoughtful and responsible one.
"Possessed of the basic skills, Jefferson believed such a man was equipped to move in
almost any direction on his own" (Lee 22). Jefferson's letter to William Roscoe of
Dec. 27, 1820, states the purpose of the University of Virginia. "This institution will
be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. ... For here we are not afraid
to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is free
to combat it" (Quoted in Conant 29). Education, as such, was for the individual, but it
had a social aim too. Education was the process by which people would come to
know and exercise their rights and so maintain their liberties.
Once again, we will turn to John Dewey's work Education and Democracy as
a comparative reference to Jefferson's educational aims. Dewey lays out three criteria
for good aims and three characteristics of good aims. The first criterion is that aims
for education be an outgrowth of existing conditions. In other words, there is a
consideration of the "here" and "there" rather than simply the "there." Criterion
number two requires that an aim be a flexible part of the growth and developmental
process of the student being taught. Criterion number three requires that an aim "must
always represent a freeing of activities" in that it increases choice (Dewey 105). Good
aims are then characterized by three additional features. First, they must be "founded
on intrinsic activities and needs (including original instincts and acquired habits) of the
given individual to be educated" (Ibid. 107-108), Second, "an aim must be capable of
translation into a method of cooperating with the activities of those undergoing
instruction" (Ibid. 108). And third, an aim must be general and ultimate, but not
arbitrarily so. "So far as a general idea makes us more alive to [the] connections [that
lead out to other things], it cannot be too general" (Ibid. 109).
Jefferson's aims meet Dewey's criteria for good aims and have the
characteristics of good aims. Dewey's work, when compared to Jefferson's, reads like
an abstract summary of the founding father's theories and proposals. How exactly do
they compare? Jefferson's ideas, proposals, and stated aims for education were clearly
an outgrowth of existing conditions. The new government, created to reflect the
opinion of the people, required a certain level of development in citizens before they
could come to know and express their opinions within the full democratic context.
But that development was not rigid, limited, or specific. Ward districts were to
translate Jefferson's aim into a method of cooperating with the activities of those
undergoing instruction. At most, a few miles would separate Virginia's youth from a
schoolhouse. Equipping each student with the ability to continue his or her education
so that he or she could "move in almost any direction on his [or her] own" is a general
aim that surely leads out to other things. The flexibility built into the Constitution was
matched by the flexibility students would enjoy through the education Jefferson
planned for them. They could become leaders or workers, but they would all be able
to develop an informed opinion. And, as Jefferson hoped, future generations would
enjoy increasing levels of self-government. The basis for this growth was the
education that would open doors and increase choice.
Today's educational system includes many aims, but I will consider the one that
places "competition in a global marketplace" above all. Married to this aim is the
assumption that computer technology is the key to success in world markets. As
Dewey points out, rigidly aiming at the economic significance of education assumes
the stasis of current conditions and creates a fixed set of standards (Dewey 119).
Even back in 1916, when his work was first published, Dewey recognized that
occupations change too rapidly for very specific training and such training, therefore,
defeats its own purpose. That fatal flaw aside, "competition in a global marketplace"
does not meet all the criteria for a good aim. It does meet the first criterion because
global economic competition is a part of the existing conditions and teaching skills in it
would be an outgrowth of those conditions. The second criterion, however, it fails to
meet because a training for economic competition is not flexible, experimental, or
growth oriented. It is a rigid ideal that can only be measured through terms of relative
wealth. Such an ideal does not represent a freeing of activities or increase choice
meaningfully because the end remains static and fixed even though the means might
Economic competition, as a prime educational aim, does not completely meet
any of the characteristics of good aims. Economic aims do partially meet the first
characteristic because providing for one's financial needs, or those of one's family, is an
intrinsic activity of most people. If one cannot provide, he or she is a burden on others
in the community. Such economic activity does not need to be globally competitive,
and if limited to competition it may well be in conflict with the intrinsic activities of
many individuals. Economic competition, therefore, cannot cooperate with the
activities of all those people undergoing instruction. Finally, economic competition is
not a general aim that leads to a connection with other things, but limits further
connections to calculations of relative wealth, and to that extent it is fixed and rigid.
"Competition in a global marketplace" assumes the stasis of current values. A
glance at the job ads shows that there is a shortage of high-tech computer
programmers, engineers, and operators. Or, at least, those at the helm of the
computer industry would like to increase the available pool of workers who could fill
those jobs, subsequently reducing wages. Regardless of the validity of the "shortage,"
the assumption is that computer technology should be taught in schools: All schools,
not just university computer science departments, but public primary and secondary
schools too. When the assumption is put into action, school boards divert funding into
technology purchases. The technology is expensive, and budget cutting must happen
some place. That place is usually in the numbers of teachers, librarians, books, art
supplies, field trips, and even sacred sports programs. Literacy is no longer the prime
directive; computer literacy shares the spotlight.
The issue here is how much of the spotlight should computers in the
classroom, library, or home share with the aim of literacy, or logic and language? I say
not much of it. Without denying that computers are here to stay, that computers
perform valuable functions, and that the computer industry will need workers in the
future, we can place the technology into perspective and include it within more
general, holistic aims that meet all three of Dewey's (and Jefferson's) criteria and all
three good characteristics. Computers can do some things well without being in
conflict with other, better methods. The library card catalog is more accessible, faster,
and easier to use when computerized. Computers should not replace the card catalog
completely, however, in case of technical problems. On the other hand, computerized
books are potentially less accessible than bound books, despite the rhetoric of access
from computer manufacturers. The public library system was created to solve the
problem of access to books a long time ago. With computerized books, a power
outage would prevent access (the entire Western United States lost power recently!), a
technical problem could stop the downloading before the best part, copyrights could
be infringed causing publishers to track and account for every time a book is read, lack
of funds might keep the poor in the dark ages, and paper would be wasted by the ream
as people would have to print out books to make notes, mark passages, and take the
text to the park, bathroom, or bedside table. Curious, literate humans need books on
shelves, in libraries, book stores, on coffee tables, and in their hands. Few things can
stop a curious person from picking up a book that is sitting on a shelf in the library.
The supposed benefits of digitally synthesizing books could never outweigh the overall
perfection of the bound book. Pressing a button and receiving text on your screen at
the speed of light saves little time because it is the reading and understanding of the
text that takes time. The real challenge is in teaching students the analytical skills
needed to understand any information, whether it is on a computer screen or on the
page of a bound book. Taking funding from these teaching efforts to pay for
computers puts the cart before the horse, stalling good education.
Analytical, critical thinking requires an engaged, active mind. Pedagogical
theories largely agree here. Engaged, thinking minds must hold in memory, at least
briefly, the information and data used in an analysis. When the ears are hearing a
computer voice talk, when the eyes are watching a computer screen move with
pictures, and the hands are tapping "Enter," "Y," "N," etc., the mind is in a passive
state. Learning, critique, and creativity suffer through computerized lesson plans.
When the computer is used as a tool of creativity, as I am using one to type this
manuscript, it is placed within a holistic approach to analysis. When the computer is
considered an absolutely necessary part of teaching, working, learning, or developing,
that consideration has stepped beyond an educational aim and has become an
externally imposed, fixed, and rigid end. As Dewey said,
The vice of externally imposed ends has deep roots. Teachers receive them from
superior authorities; these authorities accept them from what is current in the
community. The teachers impose them on the children. As a first consequence, the
intelligence of the teacher is not free; it is confined to receiving the aims laid down
from above. Too rarely is the individual teacher so free from the dictation of
authoritative supervisor, textbook on methods, prescribed course of study [as in
computerized lesson plans and books], etc., that he can let his mind come to close
quarters with the pupil's mind and the subject matter. This distrust of the teacher's
experience is then reflected in lack of confidence in the responses of pupils. The latter
receive their aims through a double or treble external imposition, and are constantly
confused by the conflict between the aims which are natural to their own experience at
the time and those in which they are taught to acquiesce. Until the democratic
criterion of the intrinsic significance of every growing experience is recognized, we
shall be intellectually confused by the demand for adaptation to external aims (Dewey
Other than functioning as a tool to help create a passive mind-set, and acting as
an "intellectually confusing," because externally imposed, aim, computers themselves
cause little harm. Their price tags do most of the damage. Students, parents, and
citizens must pay for the computers which only marginally increase the quality of their
education in most instances, dangerously disrupt the process of learning in a few other
instances, but occasionally improve things. Electronic mail, dial-up modem services,
the "World Wide Web," library systems, billing and administrative systems, classroom
PCs, networking every faculty member's computer into the central mainframe of the
campus, and endless other computer stuff, all require large capital expenditures. This
money, when spent in private industry, is usually calculated to reduce overall costs,
but even there the calculation often rests on faulty assumptions. In the university,
when overall costs rise in direct proportion to computer purchases, or other areas are
cut to compensate, the added expense is considered part of an experiment, or a
developmental cost. What has happened is that the university, through public funds
and student fees, has provided a basic world-wide computer network for the
corporations to use without charge. Corporations can now track all credit and
banking transactions better than ever, governments can do the same, and they can
communicate without paying postage or long distance telephone fees. Librarians are
now computer programmers or just computers, rather than trained people who can fill
the shelves with the right books. These are all examples of how computer technology
and "computer literacy," through an externally imposed aim, has garnered too much of
Part Three: Education as Public
Jefferson's vision of self-government required education, as a prerequisite, for
continued and increasing success. To repeat his statement to Washington, Jefferson
said, "It is an axiom in my mind that our liberty can never be safe but in the hands of
the people themselves, and that too, of the people with a certain degree of instruction.
This it is the business of the state to effect, and on a general plan." Stating an
argument as an axiom without a proof might be good for politics, but it is not good for
science. Why did Jefferson think education was the business of the state? One reason
was that the new republic was very large. If every citizen, in every small town,
perhaps part of an even smaller culture within the small town, was to have an equal say
in the government, then all citizens would need to have a certain, basic level of
instruction. Otherwise, those small, isolated communities might not understand fully
the significance of their decisions or have the ability to defend against attacks on their
liberties. Another purpose for public education, for Jefferson, was to remove a
parent's objection to the expense of it. Since the community benefits by developing
better minds in many ways, then the community should share in the expense of
educating the children. Finally, Jefferson's plan for public education would find and
cultivate the "natural aristocracy" who would become committed to serving as leaders
out of a love for their country.
A long list of reasons for including education among the articles that fall under
public care could be developed, but those above cover the basic points Jefferson
considered. John Dewey's book Democracy and Education serves again as an
excellent point of reference in considering Jefferson's position. During Jefferson's day,
the devotion of a democratic government to public education was not as familiar a fact
as it was when Dewey approached the topic. Dewey explained what he called the
"superficial" reasons for a democracy to provide education, and he provided some
"deeper" reasons too. Superficially, the reasons mirror Jefferson's. People cannot
expect to be ignorant and free in a government system based upon popular suffrage.
And, to avoid falling under some external authority, a democracy must find voluntary,
qualified leaders from within its population.
There is, though, according to Dewey, a deeper explanation. He begins by
noting that, "[a] democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode
of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience" (Dewey 87). The
development of democracy, as Dewey saw things, grew out of modes of manufacture
and commerce, travel, migration, and intercommunication more than out of
deliberation and conscious effort (Dewey 87). The characteristics of democracy,
however, which include increased personal freedoms and increased common concerns,
require a great deal of deliberation and effort to sustain and extend. The deeper role
of public education then is to prevent or remove dangerous conflicts between public
and private concerns. "Obviously a society to which stratification into separate classes
would be fatal, must see to it that intellectual opportunities are accessible to all on
equable and easy terms" (Dewey 87-88).
Jefferson too ventured into this "deeper" realm. Recall the statement in
"President Jefferson's Sixth Annual Message, December 2, 1806" (reprinted in Conant
106). There, Jefferson said public education is necessary,
[because] a public institution can alone supply those sciences which, though rarely
called for, are yet necessary to complete the circle, all the parts of which contribute to
the improvement of the country, and some of them to its preservation.
"Completing the circle" can and should be interpreted to mean an attempt at
reconciling public and private concerns, both of which are heightened, in a sense,
within a democracy. Intellectual opportunity based on citizenship, not wealth or birth,
is something a public institution alone can supply. A new, grey area has emerged on
the current scene that presents a challenge to such an understanding.
Voucher systems vary in design, but the basic proposal is to use public funds to
teach children in private institutions. The proposals vary, but involve giving a
"voucher" to parents who could then use it to pay tuition at a private school. The
voucher amount in a recent national bill was six-hundred-dollars. State bills have gone
much higher. I am going to argue that any voucher system undermines the principles
of public education, but for now let us look at the six hundred dollar proposal. This
amount would definitely serve as a subsidy to private schooling. All those who can
already afford private schools would get a rebate, so to speak. The middle-income
strata, for whom six hundred dollars might make up the gap between available money
and tuition bills, could now choose between schools for the best program for their
children. However, these middle-income people largely live in suburbs where public
education is quite goodwhere private schools often have trouble competing,
especially in sports programs. Middle-income people who live in urban areas, where
public schools have greater challenges, such as guns and violence, would more
commonly present their vouchers to private institutions. This would create a problem
similar to "white flight." Now, rather that white middle-income families loading the
car and moving to the suburbs and suffocating the city tax base, middle-income
families of all races, whose children are listening and learning more often than
disrupting or fighting, will flee to private schools. Our low-income young people who
wish to learn will have an even higher wall to climb. This voucher amount will not
suffice for poor families to choose private schools. And ironically, since more middle-
income families would be able to choose private education, this increase in demand
would possibly, therefore, increase tuition fees. Back to square one for all but the
What about a national voucher system resting on a commitment to equal
funding for all students in America? As far as I know, no such proposal has been
made. In theory, such a voucher system would pool the entire amount of money spent
on public education, divide it into equal shares, and hand each student a voucher for
the same amount. If enacted, we would soon see the systematic stratification of
education. The public school would then likely become the bottom of the barrel.
Private schools would flourish, each targeting a particular income group through slick
ad campaigns. Say, for instance, that the voucher amount is four thousand dollars.
Those who cannot get together any additional funds will be enrolled in the public
school, or in a private school that does not charge beyond the voucher amount. These
public, or basic level private, schools may even provide a good education, but the
funding practice would systematically stratify the students according to family income,
and therefore a voucher system raises the question about intellectual opportunity in a
democracy. (In today's education market, however, it is generally true that the more
money people spend on education the better education they get.) In our theoretical
proposal, those who can get together another five hundred dollars to add to the
voucher will be enrolled in a primary level private school and get a little bit better
education, and a few better opportunities. Those who can get together another one
thousand will be enrolled in the next level, and so on. "The result [of such
stratification] will be a confusion in which a few will appropriate to themselves the
results of the blind and externally directed activities of others" (Dewey 88).
Chapter Four has covered a lot of ground. It has compared an understanding
of Thomas Jefferson's vision of free schools in a republic to John Dewey's Democracy
and Education. I argued that the core features of Jefferson's vision mirror the core
features of Dewey's. With these basic, agreed upon principles in hand, I then
considered three issues within the education and democracy field. I found the
principles to make strong cases within each discussion of the issues. Commercial
advertising in schools increases the struggle between individual gain and civic
responsibility. Our democracy suffers for it. Technology in the classroom has
outgrown its educational efficacy and is limiting growth and development more than
advancing it. Finally, vouchers do an end-run around the very principles for education
as a public endeavor in a democracy. Vouchers, in any form, will stratify the country
according to economic class, thus increasing public and private struggles beyond what
My arguments were quick and to the point, and the complexity of these issues
demands a great deal more attention. The method of inquiry, however, is a practical
and sound tool of analysis. If used more often, the self-serving rhetoric of any person
will come under scrutiny that much more. William Bennet, former U.S. Secretary of
Education and proponent of vouchers, might be asked why he is not concerned about
the social stratification his system will undoubtedly create. Bill Gates, the richest man
in the world, might be asked who should pay for these marginally helpful computers he
is pushing. And, school boards which welcome advertising into their schools just as
professional sports teams welcome sponsors, might be asked why making students pay
for their education indirectly, and being distracted in the process, is all right with them.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUDING REMARKS
Democracies have come and gone in the past. Today's democratic
.governments are no less vulnerable to internal destruction than Athens was. People
still face the difficult, but reachable goal of reconciling the many contradictions,
competing values, and social struggles within their democracies. Americans should
use their system of public education as a fourth check on the tripartite system of
government, just as Jefferson envisioned it to be used. For education to perform this
role, and perhaps the role of keeping corporations in check too, it must be designed,
paid for, and administered according to holistic principles and criteria. I have tried to
convey these principles and criteria as Jefferson saw them. Also, I have attempted to
demonstrate Jefferson's practical efforts in creating them and implementing them. I
have done so because purely utopian planning cannot work, only practical utopian
plans will. Jefferson was a practical utopian. His plan, while not completely realized
during his lifetime, was largely in place before he died.
Throughout the preceding four chapters, I have kept things within the
boundary of descriptive analysis, though admittedly one-sidedeven apologetic. I
have described the best of Jefferson's intentions and dreams for America. We have
seen what Jefferson proposed for his vision of public schools, and we have seen what
philosophical principles and assumptions supported those proposals. Then through a
comparison to John Dewey's foundational work, Education and Democracy,
Jefferson's vision was established as sound (although ultimately unjust in his execution
of it when it came to slaves, women, and Native Americans), as well as practically
reachable. With this sound and attainable vision in mind, I considered several issues
related to today's system of public education and democratic government. In
considering these issues, I drifted from a descriptive analysis into a partly prescriptive
Some claim that prescriptive, or normative, political theory is not scientific, but
they are only partly right. Prescriptive political theory is scientific, and not purely
ideological, to the extent that the prescription is based upon sound evidence, sound
principles, and holistic considerations of the pertinent data. These data change and
fluctuate, and a scientifically prescriptive political theory will respond to such changes,
it will advance beyond apparent contradictions, but it will remain linked to the sound
principles and to logic. Ideology is not so responsive, considerate, or accurate, nor
does it usually assume a continuity between thought and action. If we accept a holistic
theory of knowledge, as I do, then we accept that good descriptive works lead to
good prescriptive works. Why the same scientist should not do both, as some seem to
claim, confuses me.
So far I have done only a little of the prescriptive and a lot of the descriptive.
But now I should like to do some more prescriptive work. What I am referring to is
using theoretical works on democracy and education to help understand how people,
U.S. citizens to be exact, come to respond to the problems they experience through
dealing with the institutions, both public and private, that directly affect their lives.
Some strongly dissent from the status quo, but generally choose legal, or if illegal, safe
means of protest. Others choose violence, or the rhetoric of violence, to effect
change. Still others simply disregard institutions, or make only vague reference to
revolt, and choose a criminal lifestyle. One other group chooses to do nothing at all,
even though they are concerned with the future and do experience problems they
would rather not have. How does education relate to these responses?
First, education is not the only, or even the most significant, factor in
determining how people will express their dissatisfactions, but I assume it is a big one.
My assumption, however, does not center around a superficial belief that education is
or should be the public means of political socialization. No, socialization is a
description of the whole process of development as it relates to the community, not a
good aim for education. Education relates to how people express their dissatisfactions
in the deeper senses of intellectual opportunity, relating to individual growth and
development, and trusting the informed opinion of other educated citizens.
Socialization as it occurs in schools should be only a positive by-product of good
education. We must trust students to choose the right values, and not try to insert
those values through authority alone. Conscious attempts to socialize behavior raise
the automatic defense mechanisms of rebellion. Conscious attempts to teach the skills
and intrinsic rewards of learning, on the other hand, can lead to the automatic adoption
of cooperative action.
A large number of citizens choose active, but usually legal or, if illegal,
generally safe means of trying to effect change. This group includes community
organizers, elected officials, many teachers, some writers and academics, some
lawyers, and those active in mainstream pressure groups. These people are generally
working within the system and provide a contrasta control variable if you willto
understanding why so many other people feel powerless to change things through the
established mechanisms. It is my assumption that education has, most often, served
these people, and their country, well.
Why do others choose violence, or the rhetoric of violence, to express their
dissatisfactions? Private and secretive militia groups exist in all fifty states, and the
expressed reason for their existence is the fear of an oppressive government. Their
fears may or may not be warranted, but in a democracy, where mechanisms exist to
reflect public opinion, other citizens might try to understand why these citizens feel
this way, and those in power should especially seek an explanation. Part of that
explanation is likely related to education, but not necessarily in a straightforward way.
The accused "Unabomber," has a Ph.D. in mathematics and reached the top of his field
before he decided, if he is guilty, to take violent action to remedy his dissatisfactions
with the problems he saw. My guess, though, is that he is an exception, and that most
violent dissenters feel powerless in their opinions without their weapons. Perhaps the
powerlessness comes from never experiencing, or rarely seeing, the power of a well-
formed and argued opinion in family, school, or government.
Urban street gangs have abandoned legal economic pursuits, and occasionally
justify this through the rhetoric of dissent, at least in some gangster-rap music. Gangs
are included here because they are an organized group of people making certain
choices about how to live lifechoices that fly in the face of dominant values. Young,
new members of gangs are choosing to be a part of the black market drug economy,
with all of its dangers, instead of staying in school and attempting to succeed the
"right" way. A stark contradiction between values emerges here that has some major
implications for education in a democracy. Rather than looking at education as the
best opportunity for success, it seems that these kids are considering education a long
shot or, more cynically, they see education funnelling them into a job they will not be
proud of. They see real money waiting on the comer.
Increasingly more people, consciously hurt by problems within the institutions
affecting their lives, choose to ignore even the simplest mechanism for expressing their
opinions, voting. When we label these non-voters "apathetic citizens," we imply that
they do not care about helping to make the cornerstone decisions of the democracy. A
more careful analysis shows, however, that many do care, but feel powerless to change
things (Cummings 1993). Some "apathetic" citizens even state, stoically, that trying to
change things will cause them more suffering than just living with the way things are.
These actions might stem from a dualist philosophy. On the one hand, non-voters
have enough of the material possessions they want, but on the other, they see, or feel,
that there are other "things" that they are going without such as safety, community,
and respect in intellectual matters. A simple dramatization of the dualist separation
goes something like, "Since I have food on the table, a nice place to live (physically),
and a good car, these other emotional concerns must not be too significant. In fact,
concerning myself with them seems to do more harm than ignoring them." A
democracy suffers from this sort of belief. Perhaps a stronger commitment to public
education with sound aims will lead, so to speak, more people to water. Once they
see the connection between the material and the intellectual they might participate in
the democracy, strengthening it.
Public education is only one part of a successful democratic government. As I
said in the introduction, inquiring into it compels one toward an understanding of the
dynamic forces at play in society, while requiring the formation of explicit goals for the
role of education in the society. Compared to most other areas of inquiry for the
political scientist, the relation of public education and democratic government has
received little attention, despite the obvious connection and the strong historical links
to American politics and public policy. But maybe we will see more soon.
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York: Macgraw-Hill, 1930.
Binger, Carl. Thomas Jefferson: A Well-Tempered Mind. New York: WW
Boorstin, Daniel J. The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson. The University of
Chicago Press, Chicago, 1948.
Bullough, Robert V. Jr. The Forgotten Dream of American Public Education.
Iowa State University Press, Ames, Iowa, 1988.
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