The original “Man of the People,” Thomas Jefferson, was born on April 13 in 1743.
Jefferson is best known for drafting the Declaration of Independence, but he also wrote prolifically and prophetically on education. “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be,” he wrote in a letter to a friend.
Jefferson understood that freedom depends on self-government: the cultivation of self-reliance, courage, responsibility, and moderation. Education contributes to both the knowledge and virtues that form a self-governing citizen. By proposing a bill in Virginia that would have established free schools every five to six square miles, Jefferson sought to teach “all children of the state reading, writing, and common arithmetic.” With these skills, a child would become a citizen able to “calculate for himself,” “express and preserve his ideas, his contracts and accounts,” and “improve, by reading, his morals and faculties.”
Jefferson viewed this basic education as instrumental to securing “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” for Americans because it helps an individual “understand his duties” and “know his rights.”
Once taught reading and history, people can follow the news and judge the best way to vote. If the government infringes on their liberties, educated citizens can express themselves adequately to fight against it.
By providing equal access to primary schools, Jefferson hoped to teach children “to work out their own greatest happiness, by showing them that it does not depend on the condition of life in which chance has placed them, but is always the result of a good conscience, good health, occupation, and freedom in all just pursuits.”
While Jefferson supported the idea of public education, he would not have placed schools under government supervision. Instead, he argued for the placement of “each school at once under the care of those most interested in its conduct.” He would put parents in charge.
But if it is believed that these elementary schools will be better managed by…[any] general authority of the government, than by the parents within each ward, it is a belief against all experience.… No, my friend, the way to have good and safe government, is not to trust it all to one, but to divide it among the many, distributing to every one exactly the functions he is competent to.
Taxpayers would provide the resources for public education; the community would arrange the schooling. Although we today face a very different set of challenges than Jefferson, his reasoning remains relevant: Those most concerned with the school’s performance, i.e., parents, will best manage education.
We spend more than enough on our struggling education system. Empowering parents with control over dollars, instead of increasing the amount spent on schools, will improve educational outcomes.
During his lifetime, Thomas Jefferson had little success with his efforts to reform the American education system. Yet the principles he promoted hold true today: Our freedom depends on delivering a quality education to future generations. As we honor Jefferson’s birthday, let us also heed his advice and enable parents to make more of the decisions regarding their children’s education.