Monday, January 13, 2020

AV #104 - A Treasure Found - a relative's book on education, written for Thomas Jefferson

Nov. 12, 2013

Looking back – were good schools and good teachers so different from today? 

                                part 1- #102 - Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery (1908 ->)
                                part 2- #103 - Emma Willard School (1814)
                                part 3- #104 - A Treasure Found (1800)

“Education reform is a-historical, and this does not serve us well.  We operate as if we have no past to look to, to learn from, to build on.  We act as if we need to make it all up ex nihilo, as if nothing we ever did in education …  applies to teaching and learning in Colorado in 2013.”

Part 3 - A Treasure Found - a relative's book on education, written for Thomas Jefferson

“Why? Asks childhood, and the question is quite right.”

Once more, into the past—this time back to our nation’s early years.

What a treasure! I recently found a copy of National Education in The United States of America, written for Thomas Jefferson, by my (start counting!) great-great-great-great-great-grandfather (GG5) shortly after he came to America in 1800.  They had come to know each other in Paris in the 1780’s, when Jefferson was Minister to the Court of Louis XVI and my relative took part in negotiations with the new country.  In the final days of 1799, the Frenchman immigrated with his family to America.  That winter, he received this welcome from the Vice President:

                Jan. 17, 1800
   I have just heard, my dear friend, of your arrival/ and I hasten to welcome you to our shores, where you will at least be free from some of those sources of in-quietude which have surrounded you in Europe.

My relative (referred to hereon as GG5, or Pierre) and Jefferson met again that winter.  Writing from the nation’s temporary capital a few months later, Jefferson made a request:

                PHILADELPHIA Apr. 12, 1800
…I mentioned to you when you were here, that we had in contemplation in Virginia to establish a university or college on a re-formed plan; omitting those branches of science no longer useful or valued, tho hitherto kept up in all colleges, and introducing the others adapted to the real uses of life and the present state of things:… I wish to have your aid in this business also. I do not mean to trouble you with writing a treatise; but only to state what are the branches of science which in the present state of man ….

 So Pierre set out to write–surprise, a treatise!–on his educational ideas.  It went through several drafts over the next decade, and included three parts: Primary Schools; Secondary Schools or Colleges; and The University, or Rather the Special Schools for the Higher Sciences. I just read his (out of print) work, translated and with an introduction by my great-grandmother, “from the Second French edition of 1812,” and published by the University of Delaware Press in 1923.  As you can imagine, much of what he wrote in these 160 pages (Students will rise at 5 in the summer.… They will wear their hair short and comb it themselves.) is dated, even amusing.  And yet it is a thrill to read passages that speak to me—perhaps to you as well—over 200 years later. 

FIRST PART – PRIMARY SCHOOL (ages 7-10) - Children are “relentless inquisitors”  

No nation has “school books suitable for early childhood.”  America needs such books.

      It must always be remembered that children have a great desire to learn. They do nothing else. They are always in search of new sights and experiences; they are relentless inquisitors. And the reason they often dislike the school work which is provided for them is that it takes them from their chosen studies which they pursue freely and profitably in their walks and in their games, or in examining us with an interest of which we are unaware, and of which we do not realize that we are the objects. (13-14)
     It is important that these books should engage and satisfy the curiosity of the children, and should not bore them.

The young grades are most important (or, Lt. Gov. Garcia, keep up the focus on early childhood education).

      By the time they are seven years old most of them have acquired half of the impressions that they will gain in their whole life time, -and those impressions are the ones that will never be lost. (14)


     The primary schools will be the rich source of intelligence, morals and happiness for the nation.
To Mr. Jefferson  
I am now about to busy myself upon the work with which you charged me. I should like this to be done in a manner worthy of you and the importance of the subject. But I dare not hope for so much.

A plan of education which does not begin with the elementary school is what is called in France "the cart before the horse" [une charrue devant les boeufs].
         Those men in the Government who establish the higher schools of the University, will receive the applause which distinguished scholars so well know how to offer.
     The founders of the colleges will receive the gratitude of parents and pupils.
         The approval of heaven, the administration of posterity, the joy of a happy conscience are for the creators of the primary schools.
         Let us aspire to all those honors, all those pleasures and let us earn them. Let us leave to our children nothing to do but to thank us. (117-118)

A section on teaching includes points “Concerning physical instruction.”  (Makes the case for hands-on science.  Anticipates a concept on the Colorado Department of Education’s web site: provocative Inquiry Questions “should guide students’ thinking from concrete to abstract.”) 

   They should have some information on the natural history of animals and of common plants. Such subjects are interesting at all ages, and they will suggest some ideas on vegetation, both cultivation and harvests….
   Nothing is easier than to make this study a pleasure; it must be taught as nature herself would teach it without us, and as she has taught it to past generations.   Nature has never offered us an abstraction—only objects, physical things, that interest us and that we wish to understand. (17)

   When we teach a youth to pass from the very metaphysical conception of the point to    that of the line; from that of the line, still distinctly metaphysical, to that of the surface which at least means a definite thing to him; and from that of the surface to that of the solid, we reverse the natural order of observation. We keep his ideas too detached with no knowledge of what they are based on; therefore we tire him. Why? asks childhood, and the question is quite right. It is imperative that he be shown why, or we lose the great help that will be given by the natural activity of his mind. Can we expect that children will be attentive, that they will try,  that they will work at our command, when we ourselves only work for our own interest or self-satisfaction? (18)

The bored student—a timeless issue.  Pierre’s comment might be called “teacher bashing” today. But isn’t he putting the responsibility where it belongs?  Aren’t we too quick to blame the kids?

   When a child sees nothing new and learns nothing, he despises both his instructor and his work. The young and alert intelligence of pupils advances easily and that of their teachers usually grows lazy. We accuse students of indifference or stupidity when, unable to offer them material to strengthen and stimulate their minds, we force them back to games their own development has taught them are unprofitable or to the amusements of their younger brothers, and so curb and dwarf their mentality, sometimes permanently. (22-23)


Diane Ravitch might believe competition was introduced to public education only recently, and by greedy hedge fund managers (or is that redundant?).  But it is nothing new, and to Pierre, nothing to fear. While making the case for public schools, he also approves of private schools and home-schooling:

   To provide the means of education is a praiseworthy task which should be forbidden to no one.
   Teaching is a very honest and honorable way of earning one’s livelihood. It should be free like all work, and competition is as improving to educators as to men of any profession.
   And so, if adjoining the primary school authorized by the State and supported by its citizens, someone establishes a school in which he teaches by another method, let him….
The same liberty should be granted parents who wish to teach their children themselves…. (147-148)

To Pierre, competition from “free schools” can help state schools get better.  Still true, when public education sheds its defensive frame of mind and proves willing to learn from successful independent and public charter schools.  

… it would be an excellent thing if a large number of free schools, having no support except the genius and ability of the masters, should enter into competition with our national schools, criticize our methods, show us by their example and their success how we can improve. (150)

Principals should do the hiring.  Common sense, which district offices have just begun to relearn….

                The principal would command very little respect unless he had the right to nominate the professors and assistants and ….” (111)
                  In every special school or in every college, we must try to avoid dissension, to maintain unity of purpose, to insure that good appointments be made, by limiting the authority of the government or the administrators of public education to the selection of Principal for each college or school, and to the right to confirm or reject other agents of education; trusting to the intelligence and the interest of the Principal for a careful choice of his colleagues. His interest is in this matter the best guarantee that could be given that he will do his best. (159-160)

Pierre’s advice for new schools has happily been the approach taken by many of our best new charter schools: start one grade at a time.  (See KIPP, STRIVE, DSST, etc. See one factor in SOAR’s failure to intervene effectively at Oakland Elementary School.)
We must be careful lest we harm our work in our haste to complete it. Let us go step by step; let our courses grow one from another in their natural order. Let us allow for the formation of our colleges the six years demanded by the six classes that will be taught there, with the preparation of the seventh, by adding a new class each year for the pupils who have finished the preceding one. (108-109)

Balance!  Ask students to work hard … but make time for play. Under “Recreations” he states:
By giving variety to their lessons we have tried to satisfy the instinct of curiosity. But curiosity does not always mean love of work. In childhood it passes as quickly as it is kindled….  A medium must be sought…. (85)

He then lists five times during the day–from morning to after supper—“For Games and Liberty.”
We ask those who think it too much, not to judge us thoughtlessly from their heights of scholarship, but to look back to their boyhood and see whether they would have reproached us for the time lost, whether, indeed, they would not have promised us better work if we had been more interested in their play. (86)

Long before the publication of The Overscheduled Child (2001) or The Hurried Child (1981), my GG5 found it critical to give a child time to reflect—and a few words to reflect on:

… Everyone should be in bed at nine.… Perhaps after they are in bed the assistant professor might remind them by some such phrase as, “Good night, my friends, now is our time for self-consideration, and I leave you to your thoughts;”… But he should never permit himself to ask the result of his suggestion. No questioning of consciences!...
   Our only responsibility is to suggest a helpful idea, to do it at an opportune time, and to give children the habit of self-examination when they are quite alone, entirely free.… Every man who has not chosen evil ways, and who has an opportunity to look into his own mind, will be just and will advise himself wisely.  To enlighten and develop the conscience, to teach it to use its own reason and intelligence, independent of all human authority, in the presence of God alone—that should be the great service we render to youth. (84-85)

That last sentence might suggest no separation of church and state.  But Pierre’s own words suggest otherwise.  The “wall” between religion and public education is sound. And yet schools can still emphasize character and values.  Teachers can still address the conscience of our students.

   If … we wish our young people to feel an honest piety they must not be compelled to attend religious ceremonies. We have tried … to teach them to think, to know, to wish, to act, to cast their own vote, not merely on suggestion; and perhaps that is the most valuable of our ideas for national education. But if they have become free and intelligent beings, if they have learned to use their own judgment in their relations with their work and their friends, why should we not show them the way to a similar and more important development of their soul, that they may examine their own actions and judge between themselves and their conscience, in accordance with the ideas of good, or right, of justice and honesty, of which they have learned the principles in primary school…? (81-82)


Yes, I am lucky to be able to look back and listen to these insights from the past, from a relative no less, in this way.  But actually we are all fortunate—if we are willing to respect voices, ideas, practices—and lessons learned–from the past.  We should be less dismissive of what took place before we arrived on the scene.   This tendency, I believe, is one reason public education in America so often exhibits such blindness to efforts that failed, or succeeded—some just a few years ago!

Am I saying go back to the past?  Of course not. The stirring words from Abraham Lincoln—in his message to Congress in 1862—apply to school reform today: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present…. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.”  But let’s also keep in mind the wisdom—and humility—in an even older classic line (dated 1676) from Isaac Newton: If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”

AV #204 - Thomas Jefferson’s Education – schools, purpose of, funded by … then and now

Over 200 years later, we ask the same questions

What has been will be again,
    what has been done will be done again;
    there is nothing new under the sun.
Ecclesiastes 1:9 

There is no way that the education issues Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Virginians were debating 200 years ago can be relevant to us here in 2020. True?

Prepare to be surprised.

If you read the new work by Alan Taylor, Thomas Jefferson’s Education (W.W. Norton & Co., 2019), time and again you hear echoes of our current discussions. The book centers around Jefferson and his ideas on education from the late 1770s up to his death in 1826, above all his long-time dream to create the University of Virginia. In spite of that distant setting, what our Founding Fathers (Washington, Madison, and Monroe play prominent roles too) were trying to figure out back then sounds remarkably familiar. 

Would we (our new nation then, Colorado today) make public education a priority? And for whom?

How would we pay for it? (Sad to say, even Jefferson was willing to resort to lotteries.) And how much?

And the biggest question of all: what would be the purpose – of schools, of a university, of education itself? Would Jefferson’s university, for example, seek to prepare its students to be good citizens – perhaps effective leaders in the young republic? To that end, would an honor code be beneficial? Or would the (unstated) purpose be to cement the privileges for young men from the upper class, while granting them license to party away much of their time and family wealth?

I hope this attempt to capture a few key issues raised in Taylor’s book will encourage you to ask what speaks to us, 200 years later. The particulars are dated, but several ideas and conflicts ring true today. Some of you will recall that A Nation at Risk—triggering many education reforms—was published in 1984. It helps to know that when our new nation was really at risk, leaders like Thomas Jefferson saw education as fundamental to our survival as a free people. Nothing less.

What’s at stake? Why is education a priority at all?

In his Introduction, Taylor offers this overview: “The revolution created a republic in Virginia, but it seemed fragile as well as precious. The aging generation wanted to train young men to cherish and defend free government. In 1810, Jefferson, explained, ‘The boys of the rising generation are to be the men of the next, and the sole guardians of the principles we deliver over to them’” (3).

For Jefferson, the need to offer a solid education to the young was inextricably linked to the fight for freedom from British tyranny. He wrote to James Madison in 1786: “I have looked on our present state of liberty as a short-lived possession, unless the mass of people could be informed” (162). And Jefferson wrote to George Washington that same year: “It is an axiom in my mind that our liberty can never be safe but in the hands of the people … with a certain degree of instruction. This it is the business of the state to effect, and on a general plan" (162). One can almost imagine him as 
Nothing's riding on this except the, uh, first amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters, but if you guys f*** up again, I'm going to get mad.”   Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, to Woodward and Bernstein, All the President’s Men
Hollywood once portrayed Ben Bradlee (during another impeachment season).  A lot was riding on good schools.

Citizenship, better voting, better policy

It seems clear that Jefferson believed university education was to serve the elite, well-to-do young men, to “train for republican leadership,” those whom, as he wrote, “nature has given minds of the first order” (163). In contrast, he envisioned “local schools” that would be less exclusive: to “enable every common man ‘to read, to judge & vote understandingly on what is passing’” (163). And in this way for “all” (white men) to be “a participator in the government.”

Lack of support – who will pay for public education?

Jefferson’ plans “for educating the common people”—written in the midst of the war with England—made no headway in his home state. Taylor writes: “Never has a failed proposal received more acclaim than Jefferson’s 1779 bill to educate all white children. That program faltered because Virginia’s legislators preferred to keep taxes low rather than invest in schools and teachers” (3).

Twenty years later, with the Revolution won, a national government in place, and Jefferson now Secretary of State under President Washington, Virginia had done little to fulfill those earlier hopes. Jefferson was discouraged to find that the wealthy “were unwilling to incur [the] burthen” of funding “the education of the poor” (164). Would his idea for the schools come at a cost? Yes, but in his view, “a local tax for schools was ‘not more than a thousandth part of what will be paid to [the] kings, priests, and nobles to who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.’” Taylor observes: “Jefferson had hoped that Virginians would invest in education what they had saved by abolishing the church-state establishment. Instead, they preferred to keep their money in their pockets” (165).

During his Presidency, Jefferson found cause to return to this theme. Joel Barlow, a Connecticut legislator, proposed a national university. On the defeat of Barlow’s proposal, “Jefferson consoled him: ‘There is a snail-paced gait for the advance of new ideas on the general mind, under which we must acquiesce. People generally have more feeling for canals & roads than education’” (193).

We read too of a satire by “a reform-minded legislator,” David Watson, faulting Virginians for preferring, as Taylor states, “to buy consumer goods rather than fund education.” “This is the way in our country,” Watson wrote. “Boots, bonnets, and brandy must be had at any price, but learning must shift for itself.”  Virginia’s Governor John Tyler, Sr., was equally dismayed. “In 1808, Tyler denounced Virginia’s ‘eternal war declared against the Arts and Sciences and a determination to pay nothing by way of taxes to the support of Education-the true and solid foundation of a free Government.’ In 1810, Tyler concluded, ‘He who can go back from the assembly and tell his constituents he has saved a penny secures his popularity against the next Election’” (165).

Later we read of one “young gentleman [who] blamed the state’s neglect of education on ‘the Legislature being composed of ignorant, drunken beasts.’” And Joseph C. Cabell, a leader in the Virginia Senate who worked closely with Jefferson to open the new university, saw “the dilemma” this way: “Virginia needed to enhance education to improve its leaders, but the current ‘half-witted’ legislators lacked the learning to see and solve the problem. Jefferson sadly agreed that the ‘first obstacle to science in this country’ was the political power ‘of those who do not know its value’” (188).

Character, discipline

Could a university reshape its students, as Jefferson hoped, and set them on a more virtuous path?  (Could it then? Can it now? Is the goal even appropriate, in a nonsectarian institution?)

We also read accounts of the misbehavior of students—southern gentlemen?—at the College of William & Mary (which Jefferson himself had attended). How fascinating to learn that those designing the new university in Charlottesville hoped it might take these young white men—from families of slave owners, with all that contributed to their arrogance and brutishness—and instill some self-discipline.

Joseph C. Cabell, that Senate leader so active on Jefferson’s behalf, sought advice. He expressed his fears with this (we hope!) tongue-in-cheek aside: “I am particularly anxious to be informed on the best mode of governing a large mass of students, without the use of the bayonet” (259).

Jefferson himself wrote of the “the spirit of insubordination and self-will which seizes our youth so early in life as to defeat their education, and the too little control exercised by indulgent parents. … The article of discipline,” he added, “is the most difficult in American education.”

Taylor writes that Jefferson “sought to improve the next generation through reformed education. He worried, however, that Virginia’s adolescents were too spoiled by parental indulgence and bad schools to submit to a proper education” (259).

High expectations – or settling for less


If there were no banners like that 200 years ago, the idea was certainly in the air.

Taylor writes: “Because a republic empowered common voters, reformers insisted that no republic could survive without better education for its citizens. Yet most common Virginians would settle for basic literacy and numeracy gained in a couple of years at a private grammar school for their children. … the poor could make do without book learning. In sum, most Virginians felt they could sustain a republic without improving the next generation through public funding for primary schools” (166).

A Vermont teacher headed south to teach. “There is no country, I believe,” Elijah Fletcher wrote, in 1810, “where property is more unequally distributed than in Virginia. We can see here and there a stately palace or mansion house; while all around for many miles we behold no other but little smoky huts and log cabins of poor, laborious, ignorant tenants.” He had seen more equal opportunity in his years in Vermont. But in Virginia, he wrote: “The poor have no chance at all for an Education. This is their boasted liberty and Equality!” (166).

And a related matter: recruiting teachers to rural communities. “Teaching at an old field school rarely paid more than $200, half of what a man might make by farming. Most men of able bodies and good minds steered clear of teaching in common schools.… Blaming the poor conditions and low pay of teaching, a Virginian noted, ‘In our country, no man of talents and worth will continue in any calling which is not thought honourable and so treated by the leading men in society’” (168). Ring a bell?

K-12 versus Higher Education

It is striking to see, even then, the debate on which to prioritize – higher education (Jefferson, the university) or the younger grades (as advocated by men like Charles Fenton Mercer). “Mercer favored primary schools as ‘the greatest public benefit.’ He explained, ‘In a republic, it is much more important that the mass of the people should be tolerably well educated, than that a few should be very well educated, because knowledge is power.’ He would support colleges and a university only if there were funds left after fully funding primary schools for common people” (186-187).

Jefferson fought Mercer, with the support of leaders in Richmond who, as Taylor puts it, “scuttled back to the old verities of a small-government, small-tax regime. The Richmond Enquirer preached, ‘The less government has to do with education, the better’” (187-188).

Remedial Education – is creating the university putting the cart before the horse?

Taylor points out a flaw in Jefferson’s approach to “building the state’s education from the top down.” The new university would open but it would have too few students who came prepared for university-level work. “The faculty chairman later lamented, ‘There are many students … who are incapable of writing a sentence in English correctly.’ Jefferson conceded that the students consisted of ‘shameful Latinists … such as we will certainly refuse as soon as we can get … better schools.’” To that, Taylor adds: “But how could Virginia obtain better schools when it would spend so little on them?” (191).

When the University of Virginia first opened in March 1825, Jefferson “praised the students [only 60 of them] as ‘a very fine parcel of young men,’ but conceded that they ‘come in generally most wretchedly prepared.’” Taylor writes: “The University paid a high price for lack of good preparatory schools in Virginia. The Visitors suspended entrance requirements in mathematics and Latin to accept every paying customer…. The lax admissions standards compelled professors to engage in remedial education better suited to an academy” (262).

You walk in the footsteps

To quote “there is nothing new under the sun” is only intended to observe that the education issues of long ago often look familiar. But it would be cynical to suggest we are doing little more than rehashing old debates, and that is not my point. The larger lesson I take from Taylor’s book is how central education was to a great (and yes, flawed) figure like Jefferson. Central to our well-being as a people.

Let us recognize our current and future education leaders, those of you willing to tackle the important questions for our state (and our country) as to how best to educate the next generation, how to pay for it, and what ought to be the true purpose of our public schools: you walk in the footsteps of Thomas Jefferson and others who understood this. You are not alone. You are part of a noble tradition, in your passion and in your commitment, to make education a priority.