“Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you. ” ~ Thomas Jefferson
On Thomas Jefferson’s birthday we honor the third president of the United States as almost a folk hero, we revel in his massive shadow of persuasive writing and look at his substantial legacy.
Because of his amazing legacy as a forefather and President, it is hard to think of him as a man, a man who struggled with his health and his abilities for most of his life. How can we reconcile this great American hero with the tremendous strife he had with his health and education?
For me, it is easy.
It is through his almost constant wrangling with his health and his grappling with his own cognition that he was able to become great: it was through his agony that greatness grew and flourished. More importantly, it is with his own disability that he was able to become mindful and creative in empowering the citizenry of the United States.
In acknowledging what Thomas Jefferson had created in terms of politics and a new Republic, it is important to also realize that he had to overcome substantial adversity throughout his life. He was a prolific writer shaping modern law and policy, but most modern historians of Jefferson believe that he was dyslexic. His own formative education was a battle.
Perhaps it was this long fought battle to read, write and learn that made him a pioneer in educational advocacy.
He wrote prophetically about educational reform and access for the new Republic. In a letter to a friend, he wrote, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” The fact that his own education was so hard won explains his incredibly democratic and forward thinking view on the education of the American people. Jefferson was the original proponent of equity and access to knowledge to promote a civilized, mindful and free populous.
Jefferson was the founding father of public education. Jefferson stated that a plan to infuse the new citizens full of knowledge was “to fortify us against the degeneracy of our government, and the concentration of all its powers in the hands of the one, the few, the well-born, or but the many.” It was through continued education and acquisition of knowledge that Jefferson believed the citizens could be a “a participator in the government of affairs.”
Jefferson believed that education is so inextricably linked with democracy that he rigorously advocated to include learning as a right. He lobbied to educate young children with public monies, considered radical at the time. He believed in the democratization of education, again perhaps because his own tremendous base of knowledge did not come easy.
Learning for Jefferson was not, by all accounts a given. A teacher told the would-be President that he suffered from mental illness because of his inability to quickly read and grasp concepts in class. His mother removed him from formal schooling and he was essentially self-taught.
Thomas Jefferson’s ideas about formative education and his truly democratic and progressive views on learning were shaped by his own inability to learn, by his own lack of alignment with the educational normative. It was his struggle that created his mindfulness and democratic attitude toward the scholarship of the citizens of the United States, and it is through and because of this struggle that we have the educational access that we do as American citizens.
On Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, I encourage you to accept this facet, his unmarked disability, as a possibility for his acute awareness of both the need for knowledge and his zealous advocacy for its enactment.
Out of his adversity grew a public ethos surrounding education, an acknowledgment that access to education is as American as Thomas Jefferson himself.
Author: Katie Schellenberg
Editor: Emily Bartran
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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