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Between Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, which Founding Father did the most—by far—to promote and shape the future of public education in America? (Hint: He also published a periodical with the same name as this one.)


They all say the same thing. Even the ones who should know better. Even the ones who do know better.

They all take Thomas Jefferson for a visionary pioneer of public education in America. Many of them take him for the very first figure of consequence in the emergence of the country’s common schools.

Lawrence Cremin, the great historian of American education, declares that “it was Thomas Jefferson who first articulated the inextricable tie between education and the politics of a free society.” Jefferson was, for Cremin, the founding father of the schools we take for granted today, and other eminent students of American education concur. Jonathan Messerli, biographer of Horace Mann, considers Jefferson almost the only man on this side of the Atlantic to “advance ... proposals for a comprehensive public school system” before the Massachusetts reformer did, and Carl Kaestle and Colin Greer alike attribute to Jefferson the first articulation of the “basic logic of state-sponsored schools for republican citizenship” in their respective histories of public schooling.

There is something to be said for these effusive encomia. In 1779, in his Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, Jefferson declared that the best safeguard against tyranny was “to illuminate as far as practicable the minds of the people at large.” The state should educate all “at the common expense of all” rather than confide “the happiness of all” to the well-born few. Forty years later, he still held that the education of the masses was the essential thing. Between creating a system of common schools and establishing a university, he professed to prefer public schooling. “It is safer to have a whole people respectably enlightened,” he said, “than a few in a high state of science, and the many in ignorance.”

But, as it often did, Jefferson’s writing went beyond his thinking. And, as it often did, his thinking went well beyond his actions. His politics and his performance betrayed his agile pen.

Kaestle hints at this in his acknowledgment that an 1817 bill for free primary schooling for all Virginia children cleared the lower house but died in the upper chamber at Jefferson’s behest. Greer all but admits it in his wry observation that historians of education often substitute “the record of proposals and philosophies” for “actual school history.” There are, then, flies in the ointment. Or, perhaps better, in the snake oil. Jefferson could not—or would not—dance to the tune he played so prettily.

Not even his failed proposal of 1779 can stand scrutiny. Had it passed, it would have provided a scant three years of elementary schooling—in little more than the three Rs—for the “free children” of Virginia. Beyond that, it would have set up 20 secondary schools around the state, each of them offering a conventional classical curriculum to the sons of the affluent planters. Each year one boy from each elementary school would have been chosen to study, at public expense, alongside dozens of scions of privilege. But after a year, a third of that paltry cohort of scholarship boys would have been sent home. After a second year, the rest would have been sent packing as well, “save one only, the best in genius and disposition” in each secondary school, who would have been eligible to go on for four more years, solitary recipients of state support among swarms of boys who attended because their fathers could afford the tuition. “By this means,” as Jefferson proudly proclaimed, “twenty of the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually.”

As he grew older, Jefferson grew even more cramped in his thinking about school, and even more unabashedly elitist. In the first decade of his public life, he was merely indifferent to serious schooling for the poor and middling children of Virginia, the vast majority of the youth of the state, whom he bluntly called “rubbish.” In the last decade of his life, he fought actively and ardently against the education of the children of commoners, at the one moment of his entire career when a plan for their public schooling had a chance of passage.

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