In this last installment of my back-to-school series, I will address possibly the most controversial aspect of Thomas Jefferson and public education: Did he advocate and expect only a completely secular public education system?
Rather than have it remain only in churches or private schools, Jefferson proposed that religious education be incorporated in the public education system, too — but with a twist.
True, Jefferson thought it best that it not be included among the curricula in the earliest stages of children's schooling. He said: "The first stage of this education being the schools of the hundreds, wherein the great mass of the people will receive their instruction, the principal foundations of future order will be laid here. Instead, therefore, of putting the Bible and the Testament into the hands of the children at an age when their judgments are not sufficiently matured for religious enquiries, their memories may here be stored with the most useful facts from Grecian, Roman, European and American history."
But Jefferson immediately followed those words by clarifying, "The first elements of morality, too, may be instilled into their minds: such as, when further developed as their judgments advance in strength, may teach them how to work out their own greatest happiness."
So Jefferson was not against religious education in public schools but against its being inculcated upon those whose "judgments are not sufficiently matured for religious enquiries."
And remember these three further points: First, the Revolutionary period was an era steeped in ministerial and religious academic institutions, both private and public. For example, Harvard, Yale, Princeton and other Ivy League schools were founded on a sectarian, or denominational, basis for Christian ministerial training.
Secondly, Christian education was far more prevalent within the makeup of society in Jefferson's day than it is today.
Third, Jefferson did espouse religious instruction in public education — but in later stages of academia. He believed that it should be incorporated at an age when judgments are "sufficiently matured for religious enquiries."
Even Jefferson's own university, the University of Virginia (chartered in 1819, opened to students in 1825), which is often hailed my modernists and progressives as America's first secular university, was in reality anything but.
WallBuilders has posted a must-read article titled "Thomas Jefferson and Religion at the University of Virginia" on its website. In it, authors Mark Beliles and David Barton point out that Jefferson "founded the University of Virginia as a school not affiliated with only one denomination; it was specifically founded as a trans-denominational school."
As such, Jefferson espoused not that religious education be placed under a traditional professor of divinity as it was in other denominational universities of the day but that "the proofs of the being of a God, the creator, preserver, and supreme ruler of the universe, the author of all the relations of morality, and of the laws and obligations these infer, will be within the province of the professor of ethics."
In addition, rather than a single school of divinity, Jefferson espoused "the expediency of encouraging the different religious sects to establish, each for itself, a professorship of their own tenets, on the confines of the university, so near as that their students may attend the lectures there and have the free use of our library and every other accommodation we can give them. ... By bringing the sects together and mixing them with the mass of other students, we shall soften their asperities, liberalize and neutralize their prejudices, and make the general religion a religion of peace, reason, and morality."
Jefferson not only ensured study about God at the university but also made provisions for the students to worship the Creator there. He allocated rooms at the university for religious worship and said, "The students of the University will be free and expected to attend."
The fact is that Jefferson, who is regarded today by so many as the "great separatist," did not separate religious education and expression from public education. In fact, he was against limiting education and stifling Americans' freedoms in any form, including religious expression and education. (That is, after all, precisely what the Founding Fathers, including Jefferson, were seeking to protect in the First Amendment.)
It is no surprise, therefore, that on Dec. 26, 1820, Jefferson wrote this to Destutt de Tracy about his vision for the University of Virginia: "This institution of my native state, the hobby of my old age, will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind, to explore and to expose every subject susceptible of its contemplation."
One day later, he wrote to William Roscoe a similar but expanded thought: "This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it."
The bottom line is that though many today describe the University of Virginia as originating as a secular school, it was in reality a nonsectarian or — better yet — trans- or multi-sectarian school that allowed for a variety of religious teachings, including creationism.
Jefferson's views on the illimitable freedom of the human mind and education prompt one to wonder: If he were alive today, what would he think of a completely secular-progressive and politically correct public education system that pervades the U.S. landscape and in which instruction about intelligent design and the Bible is generally scorned and prohibited?
That is why my wife, Gena, and I are on the board of the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, which offers a course on teaching the Bible as history and literature. It has been implemented in 776 public school districts and 2,377 high schools in 38 states. More than 550,000 students already have taken the course. You can learn more about the curriculum, why its teaching is constitutional and how it can be implemented in your public school by contacting the organization:
National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools
P.O. Box 9743
Greensboro, NC 27429
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