The Jeffersonian Perspective

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


Educational Elitism

A question was raised regarding the following reputed quotation from Thomas Jefferson:

This quote has been used in the field of gifted education, presumably in justification of special attention and resources being set aside for those who are more academically talented than ordinary.

I have not seen that quote in the writings of Jefferson myself, and I do not believe it to be genuine. Jefferson believed strongly in the education of ALL persons to the highest level to which they were competent, but he was not, in my opinion, an elitist in the sense that the above quote would suggest. In fact, I find it contrary to the spirit of all of the writings of he who proclaimed "All men are created equal." As a general statement, it is contradicted by many other authentic statements of Jefferson, such as:

The idea that some persons are considered unequal, i.e., superior to others, and should therefore be treated unequally, i.e., given special privileges, is alien to everything he wrote. Persons become unequal by what they themselves are able to acquire by their own efforts, and by what their own situations or abilities will allow them to acquire. Persons who receive more education than others do so because they have greater talents for learning, not because those talents make them superior persons with rights superior to those with less talent.

Off-hand, this might sound like quibbling over a semantic difference, but there is more to it than that. "Unequal people" is an unfortunate choice of words, and it is doubtful Jefferson would have made such a choice. We could readily dismiss it if that were all there was to it. But unfortunately, this sense of persons who are unequal because they are superior to others as persons is reflected in attitudes and in the fact that the inferior ones in this equation are often written off as not being entitled to much attention or concern. All too often, the education they receive is inferior in every way.

But to Jefferson, inequality was a matter of external conditions. Those conditions did not make persons equal or unequal. In speaking of property, for example, he said that his wish was that there be

The equality or inequality was a state of property, not of persons. It resulted from a man's industry or inheritance; it did not make him an equal or unequal person. Jefferson believed in educating EVERYONE, with state assistance, if necessary, to those poor who were talented but unable to afford higher levels of education. His efforts in the latter part of his life were directed toward providing universal education, and I am unaware of his addressing the question of special facilities at a given grade level for those of outstanding talent. His emphasis was on his desire to see persons of talent able to pursue their education regardless of their ability to pay for it. His sentiments in my opinion are more accurately portrayed by the following:

Certainly, Jefferson wished to see the talents of the gifted given full opportunity to be realized. But to put this in terms of an invidious comparison with those 'unequal' because of lesser talent is especially un-Jeffersonian. Those wishing to promote the education of the gifted would be on safer ground were they to use the follow statement by Jefferson:

All of the preceding quotes, I believe, more accurately reflect the true sentiments of Jefferson. Notice, his interest was in an appropriate education for EVERYONE. Frankly, I consider the quote in question to be a maligning of the democratic spirit of Jefferson. The idea that gifted people somehow have a greater entitlement than more ordinary students to that level of education needed for the pursuit of each one's happiness is a travesty and contrary to every Jeffersonian principle. Whereas the promotion of the highest levels of education that any student may be capable of could be considered a noble aim, there is nothing noble about putting differences in ability in terms of inequality of person. More noble, and more in accordance with the philosophy of Jefferson, is the idea that all students are created equal, and that each one should be given as much education as is appropriate for them. The ennobling point about teaching is that teachers are able to be a decisive factor in the lives of their students. They are able to make a difference for many individuals, and that difference is important to each and every one of them whether they are talented students or not. In fact, many teachers unjustly focus on their best students and sometimes have a kind of contempt for the less than best. But do people of lesser abilities have fewer rights? Not according to Jefferson. When speaking of blacks and the possibility that they might be deficient in talents, he wrote:

Similarly, we might say that because certain students are superior to others in understanding does not mean that they should be favored to the neglect of those of lesser talent. Public education should be afforded to every student based on his capacity to receive it, not on whether he is equal or unequal to someone else in talents and abilities.

Nevertheless, the question is raised about what constitutes an appropriate education for everyone. If we must meet the learning needs of each individual, does this not require some kind of differentiation in the classroom? As one visitor to this site wrote,

    "To provide an appropriate education for everyone means to challenge everyone to perform at the highest level at which they are capable of performing. Because those levels inevitably vary from student to student, educators need to provide a variety of educational opportunities based on the needs of their students. It is as unfair to expect students who excel academically to work at a level that does not challenge them as it is to expect students who perform at an average level to work at a level that is beyond their capacity. In both instances we do a disservice to children, in one case by not expecting of them all that they can give, and in the other, by expecting far more than they are capable of giving. Providing for the needs of the individual is by no means creating an unequal learning environment; in fact, it is the only way to guarantee equality of opportunity. This in my opinion embodies what Jefferson was saying to Peter Carr:

      'It is highly interesting to our country, and the duty of its functionaries, to provide that every citizen in it should receive an education proportioned to the condition and pursuits of his life.'

    'Proportioned' means differentiated." --Dawn M. Douglas

The only point of possible disagreement here might be in the interpretation of "proportioned" and "differentiated." When Jefferson spoke of "education proportioned to the condition and pursuits of his life," there is no doubt that he was referring to the extent of the student's education, i.e., whether formal schooling ends after basic or primary education, or whether the student goes on to college and advanced training. This interpretation he makes plain in other writings in which he outlines his proposal for a complete education system, from primary school through university, and especially in his proposal for state-supported education for the talented who could not afford the higher levels. In other words, he was really talking about the student's continuance in school.

This is not at all to say that he was opposed to specialized opportunities for gifted students at any given level. He just did not address that issue. In fact, it could very well be assumed that he would take that form of "differentiation" for granted. As we know, most of the primary schools of his time were the old "one-room school house." While unthinkable today, it nevertheless demanded a more or less individualized approach to each and every student, since the class consisted of students at a variety of levels.

Assuming that there should be some kind of appropriate differentiation at every given level of education, the real question becomes, What form should that differentiation take? Through most of our history, specially talented students sometimes skipped grades or participated in special projects. Some even helped in the tutoring of younger children. All of this would seem to be appropriate, and would not at all be contrary to the spirit of Jefferson's ideas. It is difficult to imagine him being anything other than fully supportive of such special attention to talented students. It then becomes a matter of the individual teacher's responsibility for recognizing these particular needs and for developing, on an ad hoc basis, techniques for dealing with those needs. As was suggested above, all students vary from one to another, and a skillful teacher must take that into account in making schoolwork a challenge for each student in the classroom-- which is no mean feat, by the way.

But we are on far less sure grounds when we consider Tracking and special, separate classes for the gifted, especially if these are part of public education. A first reaction is that such an approach is undemocratic. Whatever its administrative advantages, it fosters a class-sense that is inappropriate in a democratic republic. Moreover, students become well aware of their classification and of the fact that higher authorities have passed sentence on them. The teaching in the "dumb" sections is invariably inferior to that in the "smart" sections, and the "dumb" students are further deprived of positive educational influences by being denied meaningful contact with the "smart kids" and the examples that they set. While one might answer that, by separating them, the "dumb" ones will not be made to feel inferior in the presence of the smart ones, that is just argumentation. In every walk of life, people must deal with the fact that they are surrounded by others, some of which are more talented, and some less. Therefore, this form of differentiation is detrimental to all, since it deprives all of the need and opportunity to work and live with others who are either significantly less or more talented than oneself. It should also be noted that tracking does not solve the problem of individual differences in students. Even when so classified, students within each track will still differ to some degree from others in the same track.

Students who are unequal in their talents are not unequal in their rights. If education is viewed as a necessity in a free society (and it most certainly is), then each student should receive an education appropriate to "the condition and pursuits of his life." And that appropriateness, proportion, or differentiation, should accommodate his individual needs, but not be the occasion for providing a better treatment of one individual to the detriment of another.

I believe the quote at the beginning of this essay is entirely alien to the spirit of Jefferson, just because it suggests this kind of differentiation that makes some students of lesser talents and their lives not quite the equivalent of those with more talent. Providing higher education for those not capable of it was never an issue. Not providing higher education for the highly talented was always considered a deprivation and a loss by Jefferson, not merely a matter of treating them "equal" to everyone else.

There are many apparently bogus quotes of Jefferson going around, and I suspect this is one of them. What is doubly unfortunate is that these bogus quotes are usually contrary to the true spirit of Jefferson and provide a mistaken notion of that great man's views on the rights of mankind.

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.

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