Jefferson On Education
And never suppose, that in any possible situation, or under any circumstances, it is best for you to do a dishonorable thing, however slightly so it may appear to you. … Encourage all your virtuous dispositions, and exercise them whenever an opportunity arises; being assured that they will gain strength by exercise, as a limb of the body does, and that exercise will make them habitual.He continues with cognitive concerns:
An honest heart being the first blessing, a knowing head is the second. It is time for you now to begin to be choice in your reading … I advise you to begin a course of ancient history, reading every thing in the original and not in translations.An educated man was expected to know Greek and Latin. College entrance requirements included proficiency in Latin: reading and translating the great Roman writers and orators. Students were also expected to be able to read the New Testament in the original Greek. Jefferson’s recommendations were standard for his day:
First read Goldsmith's history of Greece. This will give you a digested view of that field. Then take up ancient history in the detail, reading the following books, in the following order: Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophontis Hellenica, Xenophontis Anabasis, Arrian, Quintus Curtius, Diodorus Siculus, Justin. This shall form the first stage of your historical reading, and is all I need mention to you now. The next, will be of Roman history (Livy, Sullust, Caesar, Cicero's epistles, Suetonius, Tacitus, Gibbon). From that, we will come down to modern history. In Greek and Latin poetry, you have read or will read at school, Virgil, Terence, Horace, Anacreon, Theocritus, Homer, Euripides, Sophocles. Read also Milton's Paradise Lost, Shakespeare, Ossian, Pope's and Swift's works, in order to form your style in your own language. In morality, read Epictetus, Xenophontis Memorabilia, Plato's Socratic dialogues, Cicero's philosophies, Antoninus, and Seneca.How many of these names are recognizable by today’s university graduates? Jefferson continues to the third matter of concern: physical exercise. His suggestions are quite interesting.
Give about two [hours] every day, to exercise; for health must not be sacrificed to learning. A strong body makes the mind strong. As to the species of exercise, I advise the gun. While this gives a moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprise, and independence to the mind. Games played with the ball, and others of that nature, are too violent for the body, and stamp no character on the mind. Let your gun therefore be the constant companion of your walks.I don’t think Mayor Bloomberg would take too kindly of my exercising in this manner. Jefferson is emphatic about walking and continues with this point in his letter in great detail.
Never think of taking a book with you. The object of walking is to relax the mind. You should therefore not permit yourself even to think while you walk; but divert your attention by the objects surrounding you. Walking is the best possible exercise. Habituate yourself to walk very far. … There is no habit you will value so much as that of walking far without fatigue.The founders were concerned with building character and acquiring the capacities to deal with life’s challenges. From character leads success in life. Character wasn’t something to sacrifice for short term gain or comfort; nor was it “virtue for virtue’s sake.” It was seen as inherently empowering, serving a man well in his life.
The education that Jefferson outlines above is one appropriate to a citizen in a free society – it is a liberal education. It makes one worthy and capable of taking one’s place among other free and civilized men. The strength gained by cultivating the dispositions and skills appropriate to a free man were seen as virtuous in every sense: worthy of the man, creating a sturdy and steady character, providing the potent tools for life, bringing one honor and esteem among civilized and cultivated men and women.
How much we lost! And how much we will have to fight to regain!