Thomas Jefferson on Public Education: “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical”

Many people believe that the American founding fathers believed that public education was crucial for democracy, and thus that “we” have an obligation to maintain the government-financed, teachers’ union controlled system that we have today.  David W. Kirkpatrick is a former President of the Pennsylvania state teachers’ union and a lifetime member of the NEA who is also a leading advocate for school choice.  He has written an entire series of articles on the ways in which the views of the American founders were closer to school choice than to the monstrosity we have today.  Because Thomas Jefferson, in particular, is typically viewed as an advocate of “public education,” his column on Jefferson is especially relevant:

Thomas Jefferson on Education

David W. Kirkpatrick

     One advantage of interpreting those no longer with us is that it is frequently possible to imply that they said what we would like them to say rather than what they did say. In this regard, no Founding Father is cited more favorably by the public school establishment than Thomas Jefferson.

     Perhaps the most often cited is his statement that “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” This is a statement about education, not schools. One can be educated without being schooled.  One can also be schooled without being educated.

     In 1814, Jefferson made a clear distinction between the two as he said, “I hope our successors will turn their attention to the advantages of education. I mean education on the broad scale, and not that of the petty academies.”

     While Governor of Virginia in 1779 he proposed a school bill that would provide scholarships for elementary pupils whose families could not afford the cost. Tuition at the 20 secondary schools should be paid for by the students with financial aid for bright but needy students. This could mean vouchers.

     When a 1780 bill proposed placing education in the hands of state officials he said “If it is believed that these elementary schools will be better managed by the governor and council…or any other general authority of the government, than by the parents within each ward, it is a belief against all experience.”

     In 1781-2, in his Notes on Virginia, Jefferson proposed three years of free basic schooling. He said this should be done by dividing each county into small districts five or six miles square, called hundreds, in which reading, writing and arithmetic would be taught for three years in a school created, controlled and supported locally.

     Jefferson believed this amount of schooling was sufficient for the majority of the population as the best education was to be obtained by activity in the society at large.

     Jefferson suggested that there be available “to the wealthier part of the people convenient schools, at which their children may be educated.” For those whose parents could not afford further education, each year the best boy – and he did say boy – would be chosen to attend one of 20 advanced regional schools “By this means,” he said, “twenty of the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually…”  Raked from the rubbish?

     After six years of further schooling, half of the students would end their education, from whom future grammar school teachers could come. The other half would study “such sciences as they shall chuse (sic), at William and Mary College.”

     Jefferson was still advocating this plan years later, as he did in a letter to John Adams, October 28, 1813.

     Participation would be voluntary. For his “Bill for the Establishment of Religious Freedom,” in 1786, Jefferson had written, “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical; even forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor whose morals he would make his pattern.”

     Recognizing that there might be some few parents who might neglect the education of their children he declared that “It is better to tolerate that rare instance of a parent’s refusing to let his child be educated, than to shock the common feelings by a forcible transportation and education of the infant against the will of his father.”

     U.S. Supreme Court decisions regarding schooling and the First Amendment didn’t really become an issue until the Everson decision in 1947 initiated a history of judicial controversies that continues today.

     This was something Jefferson foresaw, and dreaded. He said “The great object of my fear is the Federal judiciary. That body, like gravity, ever acting, with noiseless foot, and unalarming advance, gaining ground step by step, and holding what it gains, is engulfing insidiously the special governments into the jaws of that which feeds them.”

     Clearly, Jefferson favored student grants, parental control of their child’s education, and minimal governmental interference in the educational process.

                                                         # # # # #

     In 1816 Jefferson favored an idea he thought might insure education without compulsion. It was a Spanish proposal that no one “should ever acquire the rights of citizenship until he could read and write.” Jefferson said, “It is impossible sufficiently to estimate the wisdom of this provision.” Letter to Pierre S. Du Pont de Nemours, April 24, 1816, cited, Marvin Meyers, et al, Sources of the American Republic, Vol. 1, Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman & Co., 1967

About Michael Strong

Co-founder, Ko School + Incubator, Conscious Capitalism, Radical Social Entrepreneurs, lead author of Be the Solution: How Entrepreneurs and Conscious Capitalists Can Solve All the World's Problems, author of The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice.
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