Book of the week
Thomas Jefferson’s Education
“The idea was audacious,” said Annette Gordon-Reed in The Atlantic. Thomas Jefferson, having served two terms as president and having decided that slavery in America would have to be ended by a future generation, threw his heart into creating an institution that might teach a younger generation of white Virginians to carry out that task. The University of Virginia, chartered 200 years ago, was open for less than a year before Jefferson died, at 83, still a slaveholder himself. And yet the school profoundly disappointed him. He had designed its buildings and devised its theology-free curriculum, but realized too late that the privileged students who enrolled in it were brutes. His failure was predictable: “He was counting on people warped by slavery to usher in a new enlightened age.”
Historian Alan Taylor “tells this story with cool skill,” said Steve Donoghue in OpenLettersReview.com. His Jefferson comes across as an inept fantasist whose school was a zoo until more religious men changed its culture. Jefferson had grown to despise the debauchery he’d witnessed years earlier as a student at the College of William and Mary, and he believed his school would be different. But “the vicious loutishness” of the early UVA’s students is astonishing. They terrorized the townspeople and their instructors, beat and raped the school’s slaves, and ridiculed Enlightenment ideals. Taylor, a UVA professor and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, “seems to hold Jefferson somehow responsible for all this,” said Alan Pell Crawford in The Wall Street Journal. That attitude aligns with the general disdain academia has lately shown for our second president, but it’s not fair. Jefferson’s very purpose was to reform the society that had produced the school’s thugs.
But he did ask the school to do something he himself would not, said Drew Faust in The Washington Post. Granted, he had wanted state-funded public education starting in childhood, and he had hoped Virginia’s answer to Harvard and Yale would be affordable to more than the state’s wealthiest. But he was kidding himself that he was being responsible by handing off the problem to the next generation, and Taylor reminds us that such thinking is not just a relic of history; “we, too, are inclined to burden education with responsibility for solving the difficult social questions we are reluctant to confront.” At a time when our shared challenges are legion, “Taylor would have us recognize that we, not our children or grandchildren, bear responsibility for our world.” ■