Early public education in American

Education in the Early American Republic

One of America’s most illustrious leaders, Thomas Jefferson, continues to be a symbol of republican virtue and American ingenuity. He was a man devoted to the pursuit of knowledge. As a scholar and statesman, he had a vision for public schooling in the new United States of America grounded in Enlightenment ideas yet limited by his own (mis)understanding of race, gender, and class.

Natural Meritocracy

Jefferson believed that a more “natural” social structure would suit the developing political attitudes of the country. He envisioned a “meritocracy, ” in which educated men would serve in public office. Since their education would ultimately be for the public good, Jefferson wrote and introduced a bill outlining a plan for public schooling. As early as 1778, with the Revolutionary War underway, Jefferson legislated for the general education of youth. His “Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge” would provide three years of basic schooling for white children in Virginia.1 The best male students in the class would be sent to grammar school and then to the College of William and Mary (Jefferson’s alma mater) in preparation for public service. The general curriculum for girls and boys would include reading, writing, arithmetic, and history. The grammar school curriculum for older boys would consist of “Latin and Greek languages, English grammar, geography, and the higher part of numerical arithmetick.”2 The students, chosen from the grammar schools to attend college at public expense, would have the best classical and liberal education that emphasized advanced levels of Latin and Greek. Jefferson was convinced that education was the best preventative measure against tyranny and oppression. If every man was educated for even a limited amount of time, he would be capable of making informed decisions about his government. Despite the thoroughness of Jefferson’s systematic plan, the Virginia Legislature rejected the bill on several occasions.

Learning to Stand and Speak: Women, Education, and Public Life in America's Republic (Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia)
Book (The University of North Carolina Press)
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