HETRICK: Thomas Jefferson on education

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A few weeks ago, I joined my son Austin for a few days in Charlottesville, Va., where he’ll begin graduate school this fall.

In addition to touring the campus, we looked at apartments, went hiking in Shenandoah National Park, and shared a few meals on the downtown mall.

On Saturday morning, we visited Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello. After watching the requisite movie in the visitors’ center, we walked through the woods and up the hill toward the house.

Emerging from the forest, we passed the small, fenced graveyard where Jefferson and some of his descendants are buried.

Jefferson’s simple grave marker is notable for what it says and what it does not. Following the Founding Father’s explicit instructions, the epitaph reads:


He said he wanted “not a word more.” “Because by these,” Jefferson explained, “as testimonials that I have lived, I wish most to be remembered.”

What does that exclude about Jefferson’s life? Among other accomplishments, he was governor of Virginia, U.S. minister to France, secretary of state under George Washington, vice president under John Adams, and president of the United States. He also was an architect, inventor, naturalist, agronomist, lawyer, linguist and more.

At the end of the Monticello tour, our guide talked about the grave marker and the three accomplishments listed there.

He said the Declaration of Independence represented Jefferson’s belief in individual freedom from oppressive government.

He said the religious-freedom statute represented Jefferson’s belief in freedom of conscience.

And he said that in Jefferson’s view, the only way to uphold such freedoms over time is for citizens to be well-educated—thus his passion for the University of Virginia.

What a novel idea! That education has a role in civil society. That it’s vital to maintaining our republic. That it protects individual liberties. That it sustains freedom.

Yet somehow, despite 200-plus years of progress in other areas, too many Americans have lost sight of education’s long-term responsibility in civil society and have focused, instead, on nothing more than short-term vocational training.

Consider some then and now.

Thomas Jefferson, 1808: “I feel … an ardent desire to see knowledge so disseminated through the mass of mankind that it may, at length, reach even the extremes of society: beggars and kings.”

Former senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum, 2012: “President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob.”

Thomas Jefferson, 1818: “If the children are untaught, their ignorance and vices will in future life cost us much dearer in their consequences than it would have done in their correction by a good education.”

IBJ reader, 2012: “The world is full of miserable college grads. Dare to be different. Dare to be better. Have a little courage. Make something of yourself. Work hard. Kick butt. You don’t need college for any of that.”

Thomas Jefferson, 1822: “Man, once surrendering his reason, has no remaining guard against absurdities the most monstrous, and like a ship without rudder, is the sport of every wind.”

Chris Mooney, journalist, 2012: “In a nationally representative survey, only 18 percent of Republicans and Tea Party members accepted the scientific consensus that global warming is caused by humans, and only 45 and 43 percent (respectively) accepted human evolution.

“In other words, political conservatives have placed themselves in direct conflict with modern scientific knowledge, which shows beyond serious question that global warming is real and caused by humans, and evolution is real and the cause of humans. If you don’t accept either claim, you cannot possibly understand the world or our place in it.”

Thomas Jefferson, 1818: “If the condition of man is to be progressively ameliorated, as we fondly hope and believe, education is to be the chief instrument in effecting it.”

Former governor and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney (J.D., M.B.A., Harvard University), 2012: “We have a president who I think is a nice guy, but he spent too much time at Harvard, perhaps.”

Thomas Jefferson, 1820: “[The University of Virginia] will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow the truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error as long as reason is left free to combat it.”

Rick Santorum, 2012: “I understand why Barack Obama wants to send every kid to college, because of their indoctrination mills, absolutely. …The indoctrination that is going on at the university level is a harm to our country.”

Thomas Jefferson, 1816: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

Bruce Hetrick, 2012: Amen, Mr. Jefferson.•


Hetrick is an Indianapolis-based writer, speaker and public relations consultant. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.

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