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Reading 3: Jefferson's Philosophy of Education

Thomas Jefferson was as interested in the curriculum of the university as the architecture. Other existing American universities were closely tied to religious institutions, since the main purpose of higher education was the instruction of church clergymen. Jefferson believed, instead, that the primary focus of the curriculum should be scientific knowledge. Keeping with Jefferson's views that religious instruction be kept separate from university studies, he included neither church nor chapel in his design. Instead, the library stood, physically and symbolically, at the center of the plan, housed in the Rotunda. Jefferson also developed a list of 7,000 books to be acquired to fill the library building he had created. This in itself was revolutionary because libraries were not important features of other institutions where learning was based on students' recitation of facts memorized from professors' lectures.

In contrast, Jefferson believed that students should draw their own conclusions from hearing lectures, reading books, observing nature, and conducting scientific experiments. For this reason, he instituted an innovative elective system at the University of Virginia, rather than a fixed curriculum. There were no required courses; the students were free to choose from the available offerings. Jefferson explained, "This institution of my native state, the hobby of my old age, will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind to explore and to expose every subject susceptible of its contemplation."1

In the 1818 Report of the Commissioners for the University of Virginia, Jefferson first described the purpose of primary and secondary education, which was to provide every citizen with the skills necessary to transact his own business and understand his civic rights and obligations. He then outlined the purpose of higher education, which he identified to be:

To form the statesmen, legislators and judges, on whom public prosperity and individual happiness are so much to depend; To expound the principles and structure of government, ...and a sound spirit of legislation, which...shall leave us free to do whatever does not violate the equal rights of another; to harmonize and promote the interests of agriculture, manufactures and commerce...; to develop the reasoning faculties of our youth, enlarge their minds, cultivate their morals, and instill into them the precepts of virtue and order; to enlighten them with mathematical and physical sciences, which advance the arts and administer to the health, the subsistence and comforts of human life; and, generally, to form them to habits of reflection and correct action, rendering them examples of virtue to others and of happiness within themselves. These are the objects of that higher grade of education, the benefits and blessings of which the Legislature now propose to provide for the good and ornament of their country....

Encouraged, therefore, by the sentiments of the Legislature,...we present the following tabular statement of the branches of learning which we think should be taught in the University,...each of which are [sic] within the powers of a single professor:

I. Languages, ancient...

II. Languages, modern...

III. Mathematics, pure:

IV. Physico-mathematics...(applied mathematics), astronomy, geography

V. Physics, or natural philosophy, chemistry, mineralogy

VI. Botany, zoology

VII. Anatomy, medicine

VIII. Government,...History

IX. Law, municipal

X. ...General Grammar, Ethics,...fine arts2

The curriculum of the University directly affected its physical development, as described in this newspaper account, ghost written by Jefferson himself:

I rode to the grounds and was much pleased with their commanding position & prospect. A small mountain adjacent is included in their purchase, & is contemplated as a site for an astronomical observatory, and a very remarkable one it will certainly be. The whole purchase is of 200 acres which, besides an Observatory and building grounds, will afford a garden for the school of botany, and an experimental farm for that of agriculture.3

Unfortunately, Jefferson died before his plans for the botanical garden were carried out, and the experimental farm and agriculture school did not appear on the University landscape until 1870. Once again, Jefferson's ideas were far ahead of his time.

The buildings themselves were intended to serve as three dimensional lessons in architecture for the students, as Jefferson explained in a letter to William Thornton, the designer of the U.S. Capitol building, "These pavilions...shall be models of taste and good architecture, and a variety of appearance, no two alike, so as to serve as specimens for the architectural lectures."4 Jefferson considered "good architecture" to be those buildings which were based on classical models of Greek and Roman architecture. Although the buildings of the "Academical Village" were made of local materials, such as brick and wood, their design incorporated many classical features such as domes, columns, and "temple front" porticoes. These elements were the visual expression of Jefferson's democratic and republican political values.

Although he did not live to see the work completed, Jefferson was enormously proud of his contribution to Virginia's public university. When he wrote the epitaph for his grave marker, Jefferson omitted the fact that he had served two terms as President of the United States and instead recorded that he was: Author of the Declaration of American Independence, Of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and the Father of the University of Virginia.

Questions for Reading 3

1. How was the importance of the library expressed in the physical form of the University design?

2. Are you surprised by any of the subjects listed in the proposed curriculum for the University of Virginia? Why or why not?

3. How did the University's academic program reflect Mr. Jefferson's goal of promoting "the illimitable freedom of the human mind"?

Reading 3 was compiled from Bernard Mayo, ed., Jefferson Himself: The Personal Narrative of a Many-Sided American (Charlottesville, Va: The University Press of Virginia, 1942); Merrill D. Peterson, ed., The Portable Thomas Jefferson (New York: Penguin Books, 1975); and The Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress.

1Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 10 volumes, (New York, 1892-1899), 12:181.
2Thomas Jefferson,
Report for the Commissioners for the University of Virginia, August 4, 1818, Special Collections Department, University of Virginia Library.
3Letter from Thomas Jefferson, Monticello, to Thomas Ritchie, August 28, 1817, Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
4Letter from Thomas Jefferson, Monticello, to William Thornton, May 9, 1817, Special Collections Department, University of Virginia Library.

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