Education over the years and even decades have helped America form its own national identity to where it is today. From having English be America’s national language, to teaching children about the history of this country, to allowing freedom of religion to the citizens, they all help set us apart from other countries in the world. Just like many long-term goals, it took a great amount of time and hard work for America to get to where we are as a country currently today and education is part of that. America now has its own national identity because of many great historical figures, such as Thomas Jefferson, who took it upon themselves to improve the education that the children of America were receiving.
Thomas Jefferson was born in 1743 and raised in the state of Virginia. Due to being born into the elite social class because his family owned a plantation farm, it opened many educational doors for Jefferson as he grew older. Thomas Jefferson attended primary school and grammar school, which helped Jefferson get into the College of William and Mary. While Jefferson was enrolled in college, he studied a wide range of academics from mathematics to ethics, to literature (Gutek, 2013). Thomas Jefferson grew up with the knowledge and access to education that many others did not have that luxury, such as poor families and any African American. After college, Jefferson studied law, then he served as Virginia’s governor, which was one of the many political jobs Jefferson had in his lifetime. Many years later, Jefferson would find himself being the 3rd President of the United States of America. All of Thomas Jefferson’s past education and political experience helped him to form his opinions and set him in a direction to go towards for what he believed in for education.
Thomas Jefferson is a well-known name when talking about American history. Many people know him as the author of the Declaration of Independence, the 3rd president of the United States, or maybe just the man who owned a lot of books, but what many people might not know about Jefferson is that he was passionate about education. Bill 79 is more commonly known as the More General Diffusion of Knowledge that Thomas Jefferson wrote to try to improve the educational system. Jefferson believed many things about education, and Bill 79 was his way of getting out how he felt America could benefit and start to form a national identity. Jefferson states how there should be three tiers of education which would include elementary schools, grammar (secondary) schools, and then colleges. With all the tiers, reading, writing, and math would be taught to all the students. It was through the study of history, Jefferson felt, that students, being exposed to the experience of other ages and countries, would learn to recognize and thus thwart the revival of tyranny in any form (Wagoner, 1976, p. 25), which is why Jefferson pushed to have history of American and British be taught in all the school tiers as well. Wise words that Thomas Jefferson once wrote to Francios Adriaan Van der Kemp is, To penetrate and dissipate these clouds of darkness, the general mind must be strengthened by education (Jefferson, 1820). Education was the key to strengthen America, especially during the time where people were still trying to form their own identity while their new country of America was doing the same.
Jefferson believed that by creating a public-school system, it would help the citizens follow laws, allow for better public safety, and ensure that there is a good government (Wagoner, 1976). Jefferson also wrote about how there should be an administration to look over the schools, select the teachers, and write the curriculum (Hellenbrand, 1990). A major part of Jefferson’s plan was to allow children, both boys and girls who were free, attend public school for 3 years at the cost of the government. This would allow children who come from poor families to still get the basic knowledge that Jefferson wants children to have. Thomas Jefferson grew up on and owned a plantation farm for part of his life, which influenced his view on slaved children. Thomas Jefferson specifically said in Bill 79 that all free boys and girls could get 3 years of free education. That does not include children who are enslaved (Gilreath, 1999, p. 96).
From forming the ideas of how the school system should be set up, to what should be taught in the curriculum, Thomas Jefferson also had views and ideas about religion being taught in the schools. Up until the late 1700s, religion was a key factor to any kind of education. Thomas Jefferson opposed of religion being taught and sometimes being the main focus in education when he worked on Bill 79. Thomas Jefferson was a firm believer in Separation of church and state, which is still implemented today. Jefferson brought up how in the United States Constitution, it states that citizens of America have the right to freedom of religion, therefore it should not be forced on anyone, especially in education. Thomas Jefferson did not oppose of religion being taught in schools, he insisted on having classes talking about religion and its historical context, but Jefferson did not want religion to be the main and sole focus. By not having religion forced on students, it would allow the students to branch out and reason with each other better (Gilreath, 1999, p. 131). Jefferson also wrote about how he believes that someone who is a divinity or minister should not be teaching at state schools (Gilreath, 1999, p130). Thus, the creation of the idea of private schools being funded and ran by religious groups, while public schools were left out of religion focused classes and funded by the state.
Thomas Jefferson impacted the American education system in many ways from creating a three-tier education system, to what Jefferson thought needed to be taught in the school curriculum. Jefferson helped shaped the ideas of private and public schools for what is currently being used today. Jefferson, like many other educational advocates, helped America find their nationalism and cultural identity through the advancement of education. Education is still not where it should be today, but it has improved because of the education advocates like Thomas Jefferson fighting for what he believed education should be like.
Gilreath, J. (1999). Thomas Jefferson and the education of a citizen. Washington, DC: Library of Congress.
Gutek, G (2013). An historical introduction to American education. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press Inc.
Hellenbrand, H. (1990). The unfinished revolution: Education and politics in the thought of Thomas Jefferson. Newark: University of Delaware Press.
Jefferson, T. (n.d.). From Thomas Jefferson to Fran?§ois Adriaan Van der Kemp, 9 July 1820. Retrieved September 27, 2018, from https://rotunda.upress.virginia.edu/founders/default.xqy?keys=FOEA-print-04-02-02-1374
Wagoner, J. L., Jr. (1976). Thomas Jefferson and the education of a new nation. Bloomington, IN: The Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation
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