Thomas Jefferson’s Two Track Education System — Mortimer J. Adler

Thomas Jefferson

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

Only with a sense of that continuity of Western education from the Greeks to the nineteenth century can we fully appreciate the sharpness of the break that has occurred since 1850. During the whole preceding period, education had certain common aims and methods, not unrelated to the fact that it was always restricted to the few. No society up to that time was concerned with the schooling — much less the education — of all its people. Thomas Jefferson’s proposal to the Virginia legislature in 1817 (not adopted at the time it was made) that “all” the children should be given three years of common schooling at the public expense marks the emergence, in our country at least, of the central problem that our kind of society faces and that it has not yet solved in any satisfactory manner.

The American republic in Jefferson’s day resembled the Greek republics in the time of Plato and Aristotle in two fundamental respects: (1) economically, it was a nonindustrial society; (2) politically, all men were not admitted to citizenship. Hence for Jefferson, as for Plato and Aristotle and almost all educators in between, anything except the barest beginning of education was for the few who belonged to the ruling class destined for a life of leisure and reaming, not for the working mass, destined for a life of labor, necessary to support a society in which machines had not yet replaced the productive power of human muscle.

In a letter to Peter Carr in 1814, Jefferson outlined the basis of a Bill for Establishing a System of Public Education, which he submitted to the legislature in 1817. He wrote:

The mass of our citizens may be divided into two classes–the laboring and the learned … At the discharging of the pupils from the elementary schools [after three years of schooling] the two classes separate–those destined for labor will engage in the business of agriculture or enter into apprenticeship to such handicraft art as may be their choice; their companions destined to the pursuit of science, will proceed to the College.

The suggestion that “all” children, even those destined for labor rather than for the arts and sciences as pursuits of leisure, should be given at least three years of schooling is the beginning of the democratic revolution in this country. But the explosive force of that revolutionary idea could not spread until the economic and political barriers to universal public schooling had been removed. Two basic changes — in the constitution of government and in the production of wealth — had to take place before society was fully confronted with the problem of how to produce an “educated people”, not just a “small class of educated” men. The two changes, dynamically interactive at every point, were the extension of the franchise toward the democratic ideal of universal suffrage and the substitution of machines for muscles in the production of wealth.

An industrial democracy, such as we have in America today, is a brand-new kind of society. It represents the most radical transformation of the conditions of human life that has happened so far. Hence it should not be surprising that the problems of education in an industrial democracy are startlingly new problems and much more difficult than any that our ancestors faced.

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