RIDGELAND — In October 1982, I made a long-awaited pilgrimage to Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. After touring the house, I walked with others to his gravesite.
The epitaph written by Jefferson himself noted his proudest accomplishments: “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom and Father of the University of Virginia.” That last accomplishment, which occurred late in Jefferson’s life, was evidence of his faith in education. It was even more a testament to his naiveté regarding the ability of a university to instill enlightened ideas and civic virtue in the sons of planters and other elite families in Virginia.
“Thomas Jefferson’s Education” by Alan Taylor, a professor of history at the University of Virginia, presents a Jefferson who believed that an education based upon the classics, science and reason would prepare students to take on the challenges facing Virginia. One such challenge included the possibility of freeing and deporting slaves at some future date. His devotion to secular learning required that ethics supplant theology in such discussions as a Creator or a divine rule for the universe. Toward this end, the university would have neither a chapel nor prayer services.
Jefferson in his attempts to create a model of enlightened education actually unleashed ill-disposed students who wreaked alcohol-fueled terror upon the university and community. What Rolling Stone magazine got wrong in 2014 was spot on in 1825. It was then that students, angered over Jefferson’s decision to abolish summer vacations, hurled a bottle of urine through one professor’s window. They also whipped a female slave, after stripping her, claiming that she had given some students a venereal disease.
Jefferson’s misjudgment concerning what people really seek through a college education should provide a cautionary tale for today. The issue of campus free speech has yielded center stage this past year to privilege hoarding at top universities, and the legacy of slavery on many campuses. Jefferson’s university featured both. He sought to educate the sons of planters. His vision did not include common white men, women or people of color. Slavery built his institution and allowed it to flourish.
Today, the descendants of slaves see the wealth and power of many universities as being built upon the backs of their ancestors. Why would many of these descendants not want some names and symbols removed?
• Vincent J. Venturini teaches social work part time at Mississippi Valley State University. He lives in Ridgeland.