©2002 NewFoundations

The Educational Theory of Thomas Jefferson
Analyst: Jeff Sparagana

edited 11/19/18

Thomas Jefferson goes down in history as the great lyricist of American Democracy. He was chosen to write the Declaration of Independence because of his "peculiar felicity of expression"(A: p, 1). He was not only recognized as an outstanding and distinguished member of government but as a man with vision whose articulation of that vision was many times difficult to understand because he constantly changed his stance on things. There were two interesting aspects of Jeffersonian thought that cause theorists to find gaps between his rhetoric and practice. He wrote for example, that all men are created equal, yet he owned slaves; he did discriminate in the education of genders; and did extol the manner in which American Indians governed themselves, yet advocated pushing them out of the way as the American empire moved westward (A: p, IV, introduction). I will not attempt to diagnose and compare the dualities of Thomas Jefferson in this writing but will provide a review of his Theory of Education.

1. Theory of Value:

What knowledge and skills are worthwhile learning? What are the goals of education?

Jefferson cited a direct correlation between literacy, citizenship and successful self-government (D: p 80). With literacy came knowledge and discernment and with these came the means of safeguarding self-government and independence (D: p 81). Jefferson hypothesized that literacy and self-government work hand in hand and was a key component to self-preservation. The basis for Jefferson's belief system on the merits of literacy was derived from his own personal experiences related to reading in the pursuit of knowledge. Reading paved the way for self-discipline, self-governance, and self-efficacy. Jefferson viewed the link between literacy and successful citizenship as unambiguous and direct (D: p, 81). He saw literacy as a liberating and transforming force the equalizer for the masses and the essential mechanism necessary for human liberation.

The general object of Jefferson's educational scheme was to provide instruction "adapted to the years, to the capacity, and the condition of every one, and directed to their freedom and happiness" (D: p, 125). In 1814 he wrote: "every citizen needs an n education proportional to the condition and the pursuits of his life" (D: p, 125). For the average citizen who belonged to the "laboring" class, a basic level of elementary education would suffice. For those citizens who gave evidence of belonging to "the learned class", however, elementary education was to serve as the foundation for further study. Those boys "whom nature endowed with genius and virtue" required more advanced preparation in order to qualify them for their varied pursuits and duties in a republican society (D: p, 125).

He embraced education as the equalizer for all children. Goals and objectives of elementary education as written and presented by Jefferson in the "Rockfish Gap Report of 1818 (D: p, 120): - To give every citizen information he needs for the transaction of his own business - To enable him to calculate for himself, express and preserve his own ideas, contracts and accounts in writing. - To improve by reading, his morals and faculties. - To understand his duties to his neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either. - To know his rights; to exercise with order and justice those he retains; to choose with discretion the fiduciary of those delegates; and to notice their conduct with diligence, with candor, and judgment. - And, in general, to observe with intelligence and faithfulness all the social relations under which he shall be placed.

2. Theory of Knowledge:

What is knowledge? How is it different from belief? What is a mistake? A lie?

Jefferson's theory of knowledge was derived from heterogeneous sources from his past and present. Bacon, Locke, the ancestor of positive empiricism, Lord Kames, the Scotch realist and as time went on he included the ideas of the French encyclopedists, ideologues and physiocrats (E: p, 73). This eclectic approach very common to the times in which he lived, appealed to his needs for flexibility of thought. His theory was grounded in the methods of Cicero but reduced and connected to by British/American common sense. He utilized this eclectic assemblage through its application to ancient history to address and solve the problems of the day. They were tools with which to acquire knowledge, to understand facts, and draw conclusions (E: p, 74). History was the realm of facts and Jefferson viewed it as but extended personal experience (E: p, 74). True knowledge was a progressive dynamic penetration of the world. Seeing, listening, and reading -- reading above all. In this way one got more and more facts and included them in one's own personality until they become part of it (E: p, 11). Jefferson took knowledge from books rather than from actual experiences, and viewed reading as a principle source of gathering information (D: p, 80).

I think that Jefferson would say that belief is a theory or hunch with no basis that has not been confirmed through in depth literary inquiry. A mistake would be acting on knowledge that has not been generated through a factual research base. Jefferson would say a lie is having fact-based knowledge but attempting to us it to misrepresent or sabotage the right to freedom and self-governance.

3. Theory of Human Nature:

What is a human being? How does it differ from other species? What are the limits of human potential?

Jefferson penned the phrase; "all men are created equal" (H: p, 93). He believed in the unity of human species -- metaphorically, at least in the Mosaic account of creation (H: p, 93). He considered all men as equals in the order of nature, just as if the race had been carried forward rather then generation. He theorized that all men possessed an innate moral sense, faculty of reason, and essentially the same biological need (H: p, 93). Jefferson theorized that because nature hath implanted in our breasts a love of others, a sense of duty to them, a moral instinct, in short, which prompts us irresistibly to feel and succor their distresses (H: p, 55). Jefferson most likely saw human beings as rising above all other species because of their natural rights. He wrote: "they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" (H: p, 94).

The ability to reason, pursue fact-based knowledge through literacy and freedom of expression in response to self-governance separated human beings from other species. Basic common and general literacy, combined with the natural common sense he believed to be the natural possession of ordinary people would make for intelligent and reliable citizenry who could be depended upon to make responsible decisions for themselves and their communities (D: p, 82).

4. Theory of Learning:

What is learning? How are skills and knowledge acquired? Jefferson believed that things seen, heard and read -- above all read -- became part of a man and in the early stage of his life grew with him (E: p, 11). Learning them took place by a man forming a judgment based upon anything that came along, relating past experience, thought, facts that stuck his memory, looking things up in a scrapbook, in records, going back to the original source once more (E: p, 13). Jefferson's approach to understanding the entirety of the intelligible world, natural and human, and each in relation to each other was encyclopedic in the original meaning of the word; that is it aimed at the development of an all inclusive knowledge of facts related to each other within a continuum of natural historical life (E: p, 11).

Jefferson did not, however, followf the classical encyclopedists of the eighteenth century in conforming to a system and scheme, a mental shelf full of ordered pigeon holes. Jefferson's dynamic acquisition of factual knowledge that was to be kept together by personal "wisdom" carried the flavor of the early Greek thinkers who inaugurated the line of civilized reflection on the intelligible world (E: p, 12). I believe Jefferson thought the acquisition of skills took place through in depth study of the classical literature, languages and history of past societies and empires. This is the same process he modeled from boyhood and throughout his adult life in his tireless pursuit of knowledge.

5. Theory of Transmission:

Who is to teach? By what methods? What will the curriculum be?

Jefferson believed those classically trained in Europe were the most capable of teaching. In opening the University of Virginia in the1820's Jefferson recruited all department chairs for the university, except for law, from Europe. The current goal of the University of Virginia's Curry Education School is to turn out elementary and secondary teachers who have a strong liberal arts foundation, as well as specific training in teaching (G: p, 1). In 1779, Jefferson made History the principal subject of public education and defined the usefulness of historical studies for all citizens in the preamble of his Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge. He stated: "to give them knowledge of those facts, which history exhibiteth, that, possessed thereby of the experience of other ages and countries, they may be enabled to know ambition under all its shapes (E: p, 74). Jefferson believed history was the equivalent to the concrete experience of one's time. He proposed a curriculum in elementary schools that would focus on reading, writing, and arithmetic. He saw little use for the fourth "r" religion in educational matters (C: p, 3). Jefferson wrote that histories, not bibles, should be put in the ands of children, so that "their memory may be stored with the most useful facts" from ancient and modern times (C: p, 3). Jefferson recommended books used to teach reading that at the same time would acquaint the students with Grecian, Roman, English, and American History (D; p, 119).

Thomas Jefferson was certainly one of the foremost visionaries in history in this curriculum proposal he advocated for the teaching of reading and writing across the curriculum. Education (grammar school corresponding to high school today) as Jefferson saw it was to be comprised of classic training in Latin, Greek and French, translations back into English, grammar, memorizing, volumes of reading exercises (E: p, 35). He also included in his depiction of the essential elements to educate the citizenry as mathematics, chemistry, agriculture, botany, the study of history and ethics as the bare essentials that should be in possession of an American that sought enlightenment (D: p, 116).

Jefferson aspired for the development of an innovative curriculum at the University of Virginia that focused on academic rigor and freedom. Liberal education was the central concern of the university and the dedication toward preparing men and women for the professions and public service are but some of the goals that drive the university today (G: p, 1). The curriculum left no room for the study of metaphysics or theology. He explicitly banned any the teaching of any principles that, " in common opinion," were incompatible with the constitution of the United States or the State of Virginia (A: p, 3).

6. Theory of Society :

What is society? What institutions are involved in the educational process?

Jefferson saw a society as one comprised of the elements necessary for independence and self-government. His creed was the simple philosophy of human rights of the Declaration of Independence (H: p, 157). He saw a direct correlation between literacy and successful self-government (D: p, 80). One was necessary to ensure the future of the other. Jefferson's view of education was one that took place on a broader front, he referred to it as how citizens were prepared or formed to take up their duties in the new republic (C: p, 1). He Stated: "We know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform them their discretion by education (B: p, 1).

There is a common theme through most of Jefferson's writings that pleads for rightful place of education in a self-governing society. Jefferson took considerable pleasure in the self-assertion of ordinary citizens and even their rambunctiousness in standing up to authority (D: p, 83). Education, reading and literacy were the critical ingredients necessary to insure all people the opportunity for freedom of expression and self-governance. This belief system was one Jefferson developed through personal experience and introspection, not untried theory and rhetoric.

Jefferson began his life as a reader and possessed a canine appetite for reading throughout his life (D: p, 85). In turn Jefferson hypothesized without the aforementioned a society could not formulate and function successfully. Jefferson and many influential statesman of the time made a concerted effort to influence the formation of a philosophy in education in the United States. Jefferson proposed to create three distinct levels of education: elementary, middle, and higher - the whole rising like a pyramid from the local communities (H: p, 147). Counties would be laid off into hundreds, or wards, each of a size to support an elementary school (H: p, 147). These elementary schools would serve to deliver his philosophy of providing a primary education for the common man. The University of Virginia, since 1819, has been involved in the development of new educational trends that have served to define the nature of the educational experience for the students of our society (G: p, 1).

7. Theory of Opportunity

Who should be educated?

Although Jefferson wrote about the need for education and self-governance, it is quite evident he saw a difference between the classes as far as educational opportunity. Jefferson viewed literacy as a liberating and transforming force the equalizer for the masses and the essential mechanism necessary for human liberation. He was a staunch proponent of a basic education for all. However, since he separated the laboring from the learned class, himself a member of the learned class, I would think he viewed the opinion of the learned class as that which ultimately would take precedence.

8. Theory of Consensus

Why do people disagree? How is consensus achieved? Whose opinion takes precedence?

I think Jefferson would say people disagree because of their lack of fact-based knowledge driven by the study of the history of the past. This historical perspective would bring about an understanding of current issues and ultimately agreement on the course to take in solving problem. . Consensus would take place through the education of the people to enable them to pursue the basic premises set forth in Jefferson's objectives for elementary education. I believe Jefferson would see consensus as being achieved through the intelligent debate on premises using history and past societies as the force to solve the problems of the day and bring about consensus.


A: McKenna, George, (June/July 2000). The Dualities of Thomas Jefferson. First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion & Public Life, 104, 1-5.

B: Curriculum Review (November 1994). Shop Talk for Teachers. 34, 3, 1-5.

C: Winterer, Caroline, (May 2000). Thomas Jefferson The Education of A Citizen (Book Review). H-Net Review in the Humanities and Social Sciences, pN.PAG, oo p, 1-2

D: Gilreath, James, Thomas Jefferson and the Education of a Citizen. Library of Congress, Washington, 1999.

E: Lehmann, Karl, Thomas Jefferson American Humanist. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1965.

F: Koch, Adrienne, The Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson. Columbia University Press, Gloucester, Massachusetts, Peter Smith, 1957

G: Niles, S.G., Wallace, G., (Winter, 90). Education In The Jeffersonian Tradition. Education: 111, 2, p 156, 3p, 1bw.

H: Peterson, Merrill, D., Thomas Jefferson And The New Nation. Oxford University Press, New York, 1970.