Kopff_07-1995
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Our Classical Roots

On January 6, 1816, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to his state legislator, Colonel Charles Yancey. As we might expect, Jefferson's letter contains reflections of general interest on many topics, ranging in this case from the dangers of a large public debt and paper money to the advantages of beer over whiskey. Near the end Jefferson mentions his support for the legislature's paying for roads and schools, but regrets that government does such a better job building roads than maintaining schools. (How things have changed!) He goes on to say, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." This sentence is often quoted nowadays in support of greater tax support for America's public schools, perhaps not very legitimately. We know what Jefferson wanted schools to teach from his Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 14, and public schools today do not provide that education.

The first level is to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. Children at that age are too young to be reading the Bible, Jefferson thought, but "their memories may here be stored with the most useful facts from Grecian, Roman, European, and American history." Like William Kilpatrick, Jefferson believed that "the first elements of morality" should be taught in elementary school and his explanation of what he meant by morality indicates that he...

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