Thomas Jefferson’s Education

October 30, 2019 - Comment

From a Pulitzer Prize–winning historian comes a brilliant, absorbing study of Thomas Jefferson’s campaign to save Virginia through education. By turns entertaining and tragic, this beautifully written history reveals the origins of a great university in the dilemmas of Virginia slavery. It offers an incisive portrait of Thomas Jefferson set against a social fabric of

From a Pulitzer Prize–winning historian comes a brilliant, absorbing study of Thomas Jefferson’s campaign to save Virginia through education.

By turns entertaining and tragic, this beautifully written history reveals the origins of a great university in the dilemmas of Virginia slavery. It offers an incisive portrait of Thomas Jefferson set against a social fabric of planters in decline, enslaved black families torn apart by sales, and a hair-trigger code of male honor. A man of “deft evasions” who was both courtly and withdrawn, Jefferson sought control of his family and state from his lofty perch at Monticello. Never quite the egalitarian we wish him to be, he advocated emancipation but shrank from implementing it, entrusting that reform to the next generation. Devoted to the education of his granddaughters, he nevertheless accepted their subordination in a masculine culture. During the revolution, he proposed to educate all white children in Virginia, but later in life he narrowed his goal to building an elite university.

In 1819 Jefferson’s intensive drive for state support of a new university succeeded. His intention was a university to educate the sons of Virginia’s wealthy planters, lawyers, and merchants, who might then democratize the state and in time rid it of slavery. But the university’s students, having absorbed the traditional vices of the Virginia gentry, preferred to practice and defend them. Opening in 1825, the university nearly collapsed as unruly students abused one another, the enslaved servants, and the faculty. Jefferson’s hopes of developing an enlightened leadership for the state were disappointed, and Virginia hardened its commitment to slavery in the coming years. The university was born with the flaws of a slave society. Instead, it was Jefferson’s beloved granddaughters who carried forward his faith in education by becoming dedicated teachers of a new generation of women.

23 illustrations

Comments

Anonymous says:

Revisionist History at its Best Most Virginians and many Americans know that Thomas Jefferson considered the founding of the University of Virginia one of his singular achievements. And many alumni know that, despite its pristine reputation as one of the best public universities in the nation, Virginia students have long had a deserved reputation for hard drinking and partying.What isn’t known, even among many active alumni, is that Jefferson’s vision of the university largely failed in his own life. Even more,…

Anonymous says:

Author doesn’t pull punches Professor Taylor sets out the context for events in Jefferson’s own education and Jefferson’s efforts to educate Virginians. He shows that personalities matter in history, that people sometimes stick to their beliefs despite the intrusions of reality, and that the pendulum swings one way and then the other. Well written.

Anonymous says:

a bracing de-mythization of Thomas Jefferson by a noted historian ! Alan Taylor, a professor at the University of Virginia, is a superb historian concentrating on 18th century American colonial history. In his newest history, he recounts the background to the founding of the University focusing on the contributions of Thomas Jefferson, his family and the political and cultural atmosphere of late 18th and early 19th century Virginia. This book is part of the much needed de-mythization of Thomas Jefferson, its founder, and identified by Taylor, as the book…

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