Thomas Jefferson and His Views of Education Term Paper

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Thomas Jefferson: A Pioneer in Education


Thomas Jefferson's life experiences shaped his views on education. His attitudes towards education -- radical as they were for his time -- were influenced by his unusual life, by the revolutionary times in which he lived, and by his own rather exceptional perspective on the world. Despite the fact that Jefferson was born into privilege, he, nonetheless, sought privilege for all and his visions and objectives have had an enduring effect on the American educational system.

Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743, at Shadwell in Albemarle County, Virginia.

He was the third child of Peter Jefferson and Jane Randolph-Jefferson,

and his early years on the backwoods of colonial Virginia fostered within him a lifelong love for and curiosity about natural life and the people who lived close to it.

While Peter Jefferson would never number among Virginia's biggest landowners, he was nonetheless a socially ascendant planter and slaveholder and a justice of the peace in the powerful county courts of eighteenth century Virginia.

Moreover, on the maternal side, Jefferson's relatives, the Randolphs, ranked among the most prosperous and influential families in colonial America.

Such a background of unusual privilege ensured, among other things, that the young Thomas would enjoy economic benefits, social advantages, and educational opportunities unknown to most other Americans of his day.

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Jefferson's early educational experiences were unhappy: he complained about his childhood tutelage under "a superficial Latinist, less instructed in Greek."

In 1757, when Thomas was aged 14 he lost his beloved father, but his formal educational experiences appear to have improved considerably in the years that followed. He transferred to a less distant school that allowed him to return to Shadwell on the weekends, and, his new schoolmaster, the Reverend James Maury, stimulated Thomas' prodigious desire to learn.

Jefferson would attend Rev. Maury's school from 1758 to 1760.

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Within that relative brief period, he learned Italian and Greek and developed his lifelong passion for books.

The Educational System in Jefferson's Time

Before the Revolution, schools were for the most part unproductive. Teachers were licensed by the Bishop of London or by the governor on recommendation of the country courts. Fees were arranged between teachers and parents and sometimes the county justices intervened. Obviously, therefore, individuals whose parents could afford it received a higher quality education, whilst those whose parents lacked the financial means suffered and, oftentimes, remained uneducated.

Even for those who could afford it, the educational system was lacking. A few grammar schools and private tutors offered a temporary grounding in Latin and some other subjects for well-to-do Virginians, whilst William and Mary College, for instance, limited in faculty and curriculum, offered likewise in terms of higher education 3 . Elementary schools and grammar schools, and again grammar schools and colleges remained distinct from one another. Both had its own subjects, each remained an entity unto its own, and colleges similarly refrained from preparing the student for a profession (unless it was for the ministry of the Church of England) 4.

Jefferson's Formative Years

During these formative years, Jefferson also picked up some of the hobbies that he would continue to pursue well into adulthood, and that were indispensable for an eighteenth-century Virginian of the "gentlemanly" class.

For example, having already developed all important talents for riding and hunting, at Maury's school he also acquired the gentlemanly art of dancing and satisfied some of his love of music by beginning to acquire the art of the violin.

In 1760, before he had turned 17, Thomas Jefferson began his tertiary studies at the College of William and Mary, where he would remain until 1762.

For the rest of his life, Jefferson would regard the college years as among the most important and life altering experiences in his intellectual development.

At this point, the most important figure in Jefferson's intellectual development was William Small, a Scottish born professor of the sciences whom Jefferson greatly respected as the teacher who stimulated his love for learning and who was most responsible for intellectual maturation.

Dr. Small apparently appreciated the young frontiersman's intellectual capacities and introduced him to "the great spheres of thought."

Small, who was a graduate of Marichal College in Aberdeen, Scotland, introduced his Jeffferson to the works of his heroes, including such prominent Enlightenment figures as John Locke, Francis Bacon, and Isaac Newton.

Although Rev. Maury had stimulated and nurtured Jefferson's lifelong desire for learning, the strict churchman did little to encourage the notions of religious tolerance that played such a prominent role in Jefferson's works and writings.

Instead, it was under Small that Jefferson would be initially exposed to the intriguing world of the Enlightenment - a world in which he would soon play so great a part.

The Enlightenment

The Enlightenment, usually traced from the middle of the 17th century or the beginning of the 18th century, was an era in Western history where man was seen as being the pinnacle of creation -- until then it was religion; now humans were seen as independent who could with sufficient will and reason craft their life and destiny. The sciences, art, philosophy, and culture flourished. Skepticism became common, and the world got caught up in a plunge of intellectual and ideological as well as political revolutions.

The authors of the American Declaration of Independence, the United States Bill of Rights, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, and the Polish-Lithuanian Constitution of May 3, 1791 were all motivated by Enlightenment ideals of the supremacy of man1.

Essentially, at the core of the Enlightenment was skepticism of traditional institutions and customs, and a strong belief in rationality and science. It was for this reason that the Enlightenment was also called the Age of Reason, and Jefferson, no doubt, was impacted by this period that he lived in. His ideas on education, for one, seem to betray that fact. He sought to abolish traditional methods and supplant them with new ideas.

The Scottish Enlightenment was the period in the 18th century when Scotland was overwhelmed with a cultural and intellectual zeal and with a surge of new ideas. David Hume was one of the exemplars of that period.

Thanks to Small's positive influences, Jefferson ultimately would also play crucial roles in extending the impact of the Scottish Enlightenment on American education.

The Scottish educational model, which had initially been grounded in a rather distinctive "humanistic Calvinism," minimized the influence of religion over educational affairs, emphasized the innate value of the individual learner, and recommended the diligent and systematic pursuit of intellectual betterment.

Though Jefferson would confront serious challenges in his efforts to reshape American education in line with these "radical" values, the humanistic Calvinist approach would ultimately be widely adopted across the States.

By the time that the Civil War erupted in 1861 -- some 35 years after Jefferson's death - no less than 49 out of the 207 colleges and universities then existent in the country had been founded by Presbyterians (members of a denomination that had originated primarily in Scotland).

Influences on Jefferson's Development

While Jefferson was attending William and Mary College, Dr. William Small also introduced his promising young student to the leading attorney of the province, George Wythe, and to the colonial governor of Virginia, Francis Fauquier.

Wythe and Fauquier would join in Small in having major and enduring influences on Jefferson's intellectual, political, and cultural development.

Through Fauquier, Jefferson extended his political connections and deepened his appreciation for fine music and other social amenities.

From Wythe, he in turn learned about political ideals that reached far beyond selfish or partisan objectives.

After graduating from William and Mary, Jefferson studied law in Wythe's office and was admitted to the bar.

Some years later in 1776, Wythe would sign the great Declaration that his former pupil had composed. Later, in 1779, the then Governor Jefferson installed his former mentor at William and Mary college as the nation's first professor of law.

It was thanks in large part to the influences of Small, Wythe, and others that Jefferson increasingly embraced a radical democratic theory that meshed well with his increased humanitarian approach to education, but that did not mesh well with the conventional Lockean liberal model embraced by most of the other Founding Fathers.

Many of the other Founders were influenced by Locke's view of the human mind at birth is a tabula rasa, and by his notions of environmental determinism which suggested that human life and social institutions were shaped mainly by the natural environment, rather than by culture.

Such presumptions about the human condition in turn led many of the Founders to hold rather atomistic and adversarial view of individuality.

By sharp contrast, Jefferson's ideas about humanity can be seen as resting on four major premises: 1) that humans are largely the products of their social environments; 2) that humans are inherently social beings who are endowed with a moral sense; 3) that this moral sense, or "sense… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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