The Jeffersonian Perspective

Commentary on Today's Social and Political Issues
Based on the Writings of Thomas Jefferson


Cultural Diversity

Like many other issues that concern us today, it does not appear that Thomas Jefferson had anything to say directly on the matter of cultural diversity. Should the rich and the poor be educated together? Should pre-college education emphasize other cultures and forms of government? Should the cultural diversity that exists in our own country be made available to students in its vast variety?

We would look in vain for direct answers to these questions in the writings of Jefferson. But he did express himself clearly on issues relevant to his time that arguably could shed light on the basic questions involved here. In one interesting passage, Jefferson spoke out against sending young students to study in Europe.

Thus, we can see a desire to develop an American sense of values and traditions, uncontaminated by foreign influences. This was important because most of the European governments were monarchial or aristocratic. This led him to conclude:

Included in such statements are three assumptions: (1) the impressionable state of mind of a young person; (2) the bad impressions to be gained by the young from living under monarchial or aristocratical governments; and (3) the importance of young Americans having a sound grounding in the principles of their own government. America at this time was a young republic in a world generally hostile to this new form of government. Jefferson understandably took a defensive stance towards all external influences that might undermine the institutions of this new republic.

From these passages, we might conclude that Jefferson feared the "poison" of foreign ideologies, the spirit of monarchy, etc., and that he would not be amenable to a "diversity" that would propagate the principles of other lands and cultures while neglecting a thorough foundation in the principles of republicanism and self-government as the Founders knew it.

But the question is, would this fear of contamination apply to us today? Should our schools have a culturally diverse curriculum? Are our students sufficiently grounded in the principles of our republican form of government that they might branch out and study other cultures and the effects of other forms of governance? One could make good arguments on both sides. But the gist of the Jeffersonian position that is surely applicable to us today is: Knowledge of other cultures and forms of government are certainly important; but of primary importance is the third assumption listed above: that young Americans have a sound grounding in the principles of their own government, and that this be the foundation against which all other cultures and forms of government be examined and tested.

It cannot be said that our students have this sure foundation. Several years ago, Ronald Reagan asked if perhaps we all had lost our Founders' vision. We are living in a new world that is increasingly integrated across national boundaries, and this fact is an essential element of the age in which we live. Republicanism, inalienable rights, popular sovereignty, are themes that are lost in this new world in which multi-national corporations seem to be the chief power players. But have we lost our needs as human beings? This situation could be very damaging to us if it causes us to neglect the special legacy of freedom that we have inherited, that our forefathers fought and died to preserve.

Jefferson spent time in England and France, and loved the French, even while recognizing fully the terrible form of government under which they lived before the revolution. He was not at all opposed to having broad experiences, as was clearly displayed in his travel journals where he sought to acquaint himself with the French peasantry and their way of life. But he was strongly for Americans having a solid foundation in their own form of government and the spirit that inspired it BEFORE subjecting themselves to those foreign experiences. In fact, he recommended that Americans come to France so they could really appreciate their own country.

When we approach the question of the teaching in our schools being conducted from a "Euro-centric" point of view, we must understand Jefferson's views related to this topic in the context of his total concerns. In his day, the struggle was between democracy and republicanism on one hand, and monarchy and autocracy on the other. He would not have the influence of the latter contaminate the health of the former. In our day, the conflict is between the autocratic dictatorships, whether communist, theocratic or other throughout the world, as opposed to the republican systems of the Western democracies.

Here again, though, we are talking politics, and "cultural diversity" covers much more than politics. If our own educational system is called "Euro-centric" or even "Anglo-centric" because it views POLITICAL happenings from the viewpoint of democracy (i.e., republicanism and self-government) as experienced in the west, then no doubt Jefferson would come down on the side of an "Americo-centric" view, and would not put other systems that deny human rights and self-government on a par with our own views of the "inherent and inalienable rights of man," which rights, as he said, are the only things that are unchangeable. Even diversity must have its limits, and if it means giving equal status to republicanism and despotism, I have no doubt that Jefferson would reject that form of diversity. We should study those other systems, of course, but always in their relationship to how well or how poorly they promote human liberty. A sense of cultural diversity that no longer values our inalienable rights is a perversion of education.

As a rule, when questions of cultural diversity in the school curriculum come up, the ways in which those other cultures promoted the "inherent and inalienable rights of man" are not usually a consideration. Rather, the cry is for recognition of the way the European powers have plundered and exploited more primitive cultures. The assumption seems to be that if left alone, these primitive cultures would have been models of good government promoting their people's happiness. Cultural diversity becomes a euphemistic term for the politics of victimization. The fact that these primitive cultures oppressed and exploited their own people is ignored in an effort to indict 'civilized' cultures. The essentials necessary to establish a free society are ignored as we try to consider the points of view of other peoples. But can we really have an understanding of other cultures if we ignore this essential ingredient of being human? Are we really studying the history of primitive peoples if we only seek to place blame, and ignore their own evolution (or lack thereof) towards a society that guarantees the equal rights of their people? And can we understand other peoples if we do not have a firm grasp of the struggle for basic human rights that has made our own culture so distinctive?

Of first importance should be the knowledge and understanding of that republican form of government and its principles which our Founding Fathers considered the essential condition for our own happiness. Our first effort must be to know our rights and the means at our disposal for protecting them.

The inherent and inalienable rights of man are the essential elements of a free nation. The extent to which a government promotes the happiness of its people is the true measure by which we gauge forms of government and other cultures. Studies of cultural diversity that fail to look into these matters become merely avenues for political propaganda promoting a special agenda.

Cross References

To other essays in The Jeffersonian Perspective

To Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government: Table of Contents

© 1996 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.