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Thomas Jefferson's Education

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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 cour 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 A man of “deft evasions” who was both courtly and withdrawn, Jefferson sought control of his family and state from his lofty perch at Monticello.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.


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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 cour 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.

30 review for Thomas Jefferson's Education

  1. 5 out of 5

    Ddoddmccue

    Thomas Jefferson's Education was an eye opening account of the varied efforts of Thomas Jefferson to influence Virginia's post-revolutionary history. Veiled as educational aspirations, Jefferson's ideas included the brilliant and the undeniably flawed stands on the political, societal, and economic, with unvarnished goals of preserving and refining the genteel. In short, Jefferson's education was unfolding within his endorsement of republicanism, and his adversity to federalism. In Taylor's accou Thomas Jefferson's Education was an eye opening account of the varied efforts of Thomas Jefferson to influence Virginia's post-revolutionary history. Veiled as educational aspirations, Jefferson's ideas included the brilliant and the undeniably flawed stands on the political, societal, and economic, with unvarnished goals of preserving and refining the genteel. In short, Jefferson's education was unfolding within his endorsement of republicanism, and his adversity to federalism. In Taylor's account, Jefferson saw education as necessary to ensure a well informed and functioning government, and his aspired university as a way to assure an enlightened - not religious- experience that also countered the then-available educational alternatives, both in the North (Princeton, Yale, Harvard) and in state (William and Mary). The Northern alternatives were faulted for over promotion of a no-frills life of self discipline, piety, and abolition. William and Mary was faulted for its assent into chaos, marked by riots by its privileged and often over indulged students. The target of his educational efforts were almost exclusively limited to the privileged. Not slaves, women, the poor, even the working class. The sundry barriers to creating his academic village are well documented here and include numerous examples that seem to mirror our contemporary context: lax parenting, reinforcement of privilege, inconsistent value of meritocracy, ethical lapses, questionable political and financial endorsements. The contributions and mistreatment of slaves are acknowledged, with few examples of the recognition of slaves by Jefferson and his peers as valuable assets, not humanity. As one of his contemporaries (Robert Taylor) complained, Jefferson's university, instead of teaching "virtue and intelligence," was an educational failure because of Jefferson's "silly notion that Virginia's youths are not to submit to law & control, but to be governed altogether of their own judgment." (p.280). At the end of this volume UVA is struggling to achieve stability and academic excellence following Jefferson's death. His family, faced with staggering financial challenges, is struggling to adapt to its limited status and resources. A positive spin is the role of Jefferson's granddaughters, who leverage their exposures into a school for women, but motivated as much or more by more by financial crisis than the goal of advancing women's status. Reviewer update: The first African American man was admitted to UVA in 1955, following Brown v. Board of Education. Although women were accepted for certificate programs or limited graduate study earlier, UVA was not fully coeducational until 1970. (Its first woman president recently retired.) Recent reports suggest that UVA is among the US universities discriminating against Asian Americans. UVA is ranked 28 in US News 2020 Best Colleges. UVA's student population is 60% white and 72% are from Virginia. Currently 14 of 140 Virginia legislators are UVA alums.

  2. 5 out of 5

    The Colonial

    Celebrated professor and historian Alan Taylor returns with scrutiny and questions regarding the foundations of Thomas Jefferson’s plan for a university to equal the likes of the institutes found in the northern states, and Virginia’s own College of William & Mary. Having developed a small library of award-winning works on the early history of North America and the Thirteen Colonies in particular, this is an interesting approach for Taylor as he usually educates from a macro level, rather than a Celebrated professor and historian Alan Taylor returns with scrutiny and questions regarding the foundations of Thomas Jefferson’s plan for a university to equal the likes of the institutes found in the northern states, and Virginia’s own College of William & Mary. Having developed a small library of award-winning works on the early history of North America and the Thirteen Colonies in particular, this is an interesting approach for Taylor as he usually educates from a macro level, rather than as a broad outlook from one single figure’s idealistic aspirations. Indeed, the reader familiar with Taylor’s prior histories will be pleasantly astonished to find a sense of humor right in the opening dialogue, where he asserts that Jefferson may be the first ever student recorded—and likely the last—to honor a pledge of partying less if he gained admittance into college. Taylor begins his account by diving into an informative social history of colonial Virginia, highlighting the inequalities of slaves as well as the acknowledged class barrier dividing the landed gentry (Lee, Burwell, Carter, and Fairfax families are named) from their rugged common white counterparts. Always unique and fundamental to Taylor’s style and his various works are the numerous subchapters that take precedence in-between noteworthy topics, which allow his audience to easily digest and hearken back to specific subjects of interest and importance. After describing Jefferson’s upbringing and privileged status as the firstborn and sole-inheritor of the family estate at Shadwell, Taylor segues to his acceptance at William & Mary at the age of seventeen—where he appropriately gives a blueprint like history of the campus’ buildings and its faculty’s educational standards and practices. In discussing the everyday life of education and religion in Virginia society, Taylor makes the point that the slave industry in context with the provincials’ calls for liberty from oppression was not seen then as hypocritical, nor was it a topic of division between party lines. Rather, in the eighteenth century there were vast schisms taking place between Episcopalians and secularists, and Jefferson in particular led calls for enforcing a full separation between Church and State. The book has a tendency to move back and forth from one period or year to the next, which can at times be a bit encumbering for all of the information being put forth. For instance, when discussing the social history of colonial Williamsburg, Taylor jumps decades ahead to Jefferson’s presidential inauguration, in effect noting that Virginia held a paramount majority of anti-federalist voters and politicians. Quite a bit of attention is paid to both Jefferson’s offspring and retirement years at Monticello, where Taylor gives a long-winded yet intimate history of the drunken animosity between both of his son-in-laws—with education taking a back seat in an effort to feature some of the more entertaining plights and controversies of the Randolph and Bankhead families. When comparing some of the modern day news coverage of students protesting, vandalizing, and tearing down statues of Civil War leaders and Revolutionary War icons such as George Rogers Clark, it’s rather remarkable to note from Taylor’s work that America has had a rather proud and unwavering history of rambunctious college students causing mischief and debate. Years after the War for Independence, not only did they deface a statue of one of the most esteemed royal governors at the College of William & Mary, but they also were found to debauch and riot outside of the school grounds: In addition to harassing the town, students ambushed one another “in the dark passages of a night at the risk of their necks” in the main college building. Stealing cannon balls from the local powder magazine, they rolled them down the hallways, threatening the ankles of the unwary. After one eggnog party, they brought “a horse into college, riding him about the large area below stairs and then endeavouring to carry him up into the upper stories.” Then they ventured out to “set the town to rights.” More than a third of the book is dedicated to America’s industry of slavery, a shameless past that Taylor appropriately sheds light on by noting that African Americans were keenly aware of the benefits of literacy and an overall education—going to great lengths in hiding their ability to both read and write in order to escape a brutal punishment. Another key message found throughout the chapters is the fact that parents particularly valued an education for their daughters—even in some cases over their sons—in which boys would be thought unmanly and idle if they put too much emphasis on their studies and books, embarrassed for their traits of introversion. Indeed, Taylor at one point addresses Martha Jefferson Randolph as the second-most enlightened and educated Virginian in the early-nineteenth century, but he aptly reminds his audience that her overseas circumstances were far different from that of the boarding and female academies of Virginia, which adhered to the feminine qualities of the day, rather than putting emphasis on a classical education or Latin. Taylor presents Jefferson’s lifetime dream and eventual achievement of funding and building the University of Virginia meticulously—not sparing any of its proud foundations nor hidden faults. Long alleged and suspected by many to have undeniable principles of anglophobia, it’s therefore rather ironic that Jefferson first and foremost set out to find the most esteemed British professors and doctors for his university—and subsequently received the xenophobic diatribes and outcries against foreign educators which were typical of the age. Jefferson enforced a strict policy of only allowing a six week vacation period in the winter, causing professors to protest and collegians to riot during the scorching and humid dog days of summer. It would be these same “honor-bound” students who would be proven innocent of such barbarous acts of cruelty on slaves and servants—with Taylor citing instances of severe caning for serving watery butter, and the sickening rape of a slave who’s assailants complained of the venereal disease acquired after their horrific act. Taylor has written a thought-provoking history on education in early-nineteenth century Virginia, and leaves his audience wondering whether Jefferson’s final gift of a prestigious college was indeed a successful enterprise, or a questionable failure. Regrettably, shortly after his death, the secularist roots that the University had once prided itself on instead became entangled with Christian doctrine and academia, not to mention an increasingly riotous and untamed student body that defended slavery to its core. Concluding with a look into the later history of Jefferson’s Monticello and his surviving relations, Taylor has included over twenty maps and illustrations, as well as an index. Read the Full Review and More

  3. 4 out of 5

    Sher

    3.5 I liked this book, but it wasn't what I expected. The U of VA isn't really covered until mid-way through the book. Great focus is laid on the moral state of the young men belonging to the wealthy Virginian planter class. Admittedly Jefferson had great challenges trying to reach his goals, but was he naive in his goals? He hoped to educate the next generations in Virginia, that these men would participate rationally in civic life thereby upholding democratic ideals. But, Jefferson had little 3.5 I liked this book, but it wasn't what I expected. The U of VA isn't really covered until mid-way through the book. Great focus is laid on the moral state of the young men belonging to the wealthy Virginian planter class. Admittedly Jefferson had great challenges trying to reach his goals, but was he naive in his goals? He hoped to educate the next generations in Virginia, that these men would participate rationally in civic life thereby upholding democratic ideals. But, Jefferson had little in the way of decent men to work with. The U was built by slaves, and great sums of money went into the architecture (Jeffersons' pet passions), instead of being spent to maintain professors etc. Another issue is the U was secular, so the calming , controlling influence of Christianity was not upon the institution, and students spent their time drinking, gambling, carousing, terrorizing the townsfolk, and fighting. The view presented of these young American gentry is appalling. Shows Jefferson's idiosyncrasies, and I think his weaknesses for romantic, impractical ideals that were not well grounded in what would work! He was such a contradiction- he wanted progress, but he also wanted his vision of deism and high culture to reign, while also wanting a civilized polity to come later that would enact progressive reforms. It was all mixed up, and in the end he was seen as an impediment to the university's success and progress.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Debra

    A history of education during the slavery era, with an emphasis on Jefferson's University of Virginia. Not what I was expecting (which is probably my fault) but glad that I listened anyway.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Richard Edwards

    A somewhat dry academic read. Thomas Jefferson would be at home with the limousine liberals. He wrote all men are created equal, but he practiced naive elitism along side fiscal irresponsibility.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Richard de Villiers

    I really did not know what to expect when I purchased this book. I recall reading one of Taylor's works a while back (a really long while back) in college. I am eternally fascinated by the paradox that is Jefferson and the book promised to tell the story of his founding of the University of Virginia. If this was just about UVA I'm sure Taylor would have succeeded but this is so much more. Taylor builds on themes, layer by layer setting the foundation for his story as he proceeds. This is not a n I really did not know what to expect when I purchased this book. I recall reading one of Taylor's works a while back (a really long while back) in college. I am eternally fascinated by the paradox that is Jefferson and the book promised to tell the story of his founding of the University of Virginia. If this was just about UVA I'm sure Taylor would have succeeded but this is so much more. Taylor builds on themes, layer by layer setting the foundation for his story as he proceeds. This is not a narrative but Taylor drives forward in his story as he explores pre-Revolutionary, Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary Virginia. We learn plenty about the failings of William & Mary and how society played a role in the hard to handle students. How some of Jefferson's reforms actually hurt education in general. How they hypersensitive code of honor that resulted in dueling evolved and of course slavery, the moral rot that was eating at the core of Virginia. Jefferson's hopes that his new school would educate a new generation that would solve the slavery question were dashed and in fact probably made things worse. This is a great book.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Brandon McGuire

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. I thought it was ok. It had a lot of interesting ideas, but it struggled to hold my attention for long periods of time. I enjoy history and I really enjoy reading about what some of the founding fathers actually believed and the societies they grew up in. They were flawed men that led a revolution, made mistakes, and seemed to have some well-intentioned at times, if not hypocritical views. One of the quotes that stood out to me was the questioning of keeping slavery around as the colonists had g I thought it was ok. It had a lot of interesting ideas, but it struggled to hold my attention for long periods of time. I enjoy history and I really enjoy reading about what some of the founding fathers actually believed and the societies they grew up in. They were flawed men that led a revolution, made mistakes, and seemed to have some well-intentioned at times, if not hypocritical views. One of the quotes that stood out to me was the questioning of keeping slavery around as the colonists had gone through a revolution for far less. Another interesting one that infuriated me was the idea that Patrick Henry didn’t want to abolish slavery, because he couldn’t be bothered/it would be too much work and wasn’t worth it. It’s also fairly interesting to see how going to school was treated for such a long period of time concerning the focus on outside wealth beforehand and the lack of learning that went on in the schools themselves. Overall, I don’t know if I would recommend it. If you really enjoy history there’s a lot to enjoy here, but it dragged a lot and I’ve read others that held my attention far better.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Tom

    The title of this book is somewhat of a misnomer because it's not apparent Jefferson learned much from his struggles to get Virginia to adopt a system of universal public education and establish a national-level university. As was so often the case with Jefferson, the view from his mountaintop was more romantic than the reality on the ground below. Then again, Jefferson's desire to reinforce with education his anti-federalist and states-rights philosophy worked against his desire to modernize Vi The title of this book is somewhat of a misnomer because it's not apparent Jefferson learned much from his struggles to get Virginia to adopt a system of universal public education and establish a national-level university. As was so often the case with Jefferson, the view from his mountaintop was more romantic than the reality on the ground below. Then again, Jefferson's desire to reinforce with education his anti-federalist and states-rights philosophy worked against his desire to modernize Virginia, as Professor Taylor points out. Parts of this book get lost in the weeds of local Virginia politics, but the descriptions of the founding and early years of UVA are fascinating. In particular, Jefferson wanted more rigor than did the first university students and their families, while his admirable insistence on a strictly secular campus brought him into conflict with would-be supporters of his efforts. Taylor is not always as elegant as one would wish, but he presents a wealth of information in a readable manner.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Josh

    The information is unparalleled and gives a wonderful picture of post-Revolutionary Virginia with Jefferson’s philosophy of education as its axis. Taylor deals very well with slavery never once romanticizing the barbaric practice and clearly showing the hypocrisy of many southern leaders to complained of its existence but did nothing to truly remedy. Also 18th century white college men were very similar to their 21st peers.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jason Reese

    This was an interesting hybrid of a biography of Jefferson and picture of Virginia society seen through its education system (or lack thereof). Though I never cease to loathe the Sage of Monticello, he does often provoke me to thought. I will never look at the University of Virginia quite the same again.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Miranda Burnett

    I really wanted to like this one. I've read Dr. Taylor's other works and enjoyed them, particularly Internal Enemy. No matter how hard I tried, I could not get into TJ's Education and didn't understand how his discussions of glebe lands, dueling, etc., fit under the theme of the title.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Kristy Brinkerhoff

    Journey back in time. Sad, refreshing and enlightening. F An informative reas for anyone interested in the history of education.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Polly

  14. 4 out of 5

    Nora Sutton

  15. 5 out of 5

    tiffany greene

  16. 4 out of 5

    Gregory

  17. 4 out of 5

    David E.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Richard

  19. 4 out of 5

    Joseph LaValle

  20. 5 out of 5

    Penthesilea1623

  21. 4 out of 5

    Henry J Vanwageningen

  22. 4 out of 5

    Ken Wahe

  23. 5 out of 5

    Michael

  24. 4 out of 5

    Frank

  25. 5 out of 5

    Lindalou

  26. 4 out of 5

    Lindsey

  27. 5 out of 5

    Seana

  28. 4 out of 5

    Meagan Ballenger

  29. 5 out of 5

    Carl

  30. 4 out of 5

    Sheridan

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