November 1, 2019
Alan Taylor's Book Reviewed in the Washington Post: Thomas Jefferson’s EducationHistorians in the News
tags: slavery, University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson
Drew Faust is president emerita and Arthur Kingsley Porter university professor at Harvard.
Alan Taylor’s latest book, “Thomas Jefferson’s Education,” also addresses the connection between slavery and the University of Virginia, where he has served as a professor of history since 2014. But Taylor approaches the question from a different perspective. His focus is not so much on illuminating particular financial links between the university and slavery, or on documenting the indispensable contributions of African Americans to university life, although he does do both these things. The overarching purpose of his book is instead to demonstrate how U-Va. was from its very conception shaped and distorted by slavery, by the habits of mind and behavior slavery necessitated, by the social structures and values it yielded, by the moral compromises it required. “Slavery dominated that society,” Taylor writes, “affecting everyone and every institution.” Jefferson’s “noble aspirations” for the university he cherished as his most significant legacy became, as Taylor forcefully demonstrates, “entangled” in the inequalities and injustices of his society.
Jefferson’s original program for education in Virginia encompassed a plan for schools, secondary academies and, at the apex, an elite university. But the hierarchical assumptions of a slave-owning society, which limited female education and prohibited black literacy, also made publicly supported schools for common whites seem unnecessary. Virginia and the early national South regarded education as training for an individual to occupy an already determined social position. A subordinated class or race had little need for extensive learning, which might even prove dangerous if it nurtured unrealistic expectations. After his 1779 proposal for the education of all white children failed in the legislature, Jefferson narrowed his attention to only the higher-education aspect of his plan.
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