this [securing our liberty] requires two grades of education. first some institution where science in all it’s branches is taught, and in the highest degree to which the human mind has carried it … secondly such a degree of learning given to every member of the society as will enable him to read, to judge & to vote understandingly on what is passing. this would be the object of township schools. I understand from your letter that the first of these only is under present contemplation. let us recieve with contentment what the legislature is now ready to give. the other branch will be incorporated into the system at some more favorable moment.
Thomas Jefferson to Littleton W. Tazewell, January 5, 1805
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Practical leaders take what they can get gratefully and work for more later.
Responding to Tazewell’s inquiry about a university, Thomas Jefferson replied that a university alone wasn’t enough. It needed to be coupled with general education for all. Higher education in all the sciences was essential for preparing the gifted for leadership. General education was necessary, too, enabling all men “to read, to judge & to vote understandingly.”
Jefferson accepted willingly that the legislature was considering only higher education. It was an essential step in the right direction. He would welcome the addition of general education at a later time.
About 30 years before, Jefferson authored a “Bill for the General Diffusion of Knowledge” in Virginia. It proposed three years of free public education for all boys and girls, two additional levels of advanced, fee-based schooling, and a scholarship program for the brightest but poorest students. Of course, slave children were not considered, but his proposal was radical in a time when the only ones privileged to have any advanced education were those born male, white and to parents with the means to pay for it privately. His proposals were never completely adopted, but he lobbied for the cause for the remaining 50 years of his life.