Thomas Jefferson: A Biography

By Nathan Schachner | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER 70 A Philosophy of Life

Jefferson'S ideas on the education of men were radical and advanced beyond his time; but they lagged considerably when he contemplated women. "A plan of female education," he confessed. "has never been a subject of systematic contemplation with me." He had hitherto considered it only insofar as his own daughters' education was concerned; and there, since they were intended for country life, he thought it wise to give them a solid basis in order that they might be in a position to educate their own daughters, or even their sons. "should their fathers be lost, or incapable, or inattentive."

He considered the greatest obstacle in the path of a good education "the inordinate passion prevalent for novels. . . . When this poison infects the mind," he wrote, "it destroys its tone and revolts it against wholesome reading. Reason and fact, plain and unadorned, are rejected. . . . The result is a bloated imagination, sickly judgment, and disgust towards all the real businesses of life." He qualified his harsh judgment of "this mass of trash" to admit there were certain novels that might form "interesting and useful vehicles of a sound morality." Such were certain works of Marmontel, Madame Genlis and the writings of Maria Edgeworth.

He applied the same strictures to poetry; though he exempted Pope, Dryden, Shakespeare, Molière, Racine and a few others from his blanket condemnation. He evidently did not consider the Greek and Roman authors as being "poets" in his special definition of the term.

Indispensable in the education of women was a knowledge of French, dancing, drawing and music. But he subscribed to the French rule that martied women must forswear dancing. "This," he said, "is founded in solid physical reasons, gestation and nursing leaving little time to a married lady when this exercise can be either safe or innocent."1

If he thus largely omitted women from his educational scheme, it was perhaps because they were not voting citizens, and therefore it was not as necessary for them to be as informed as men. He invariably equated education and citizenship, and considered one the requisite preliminary for the other.

It grieved him that his fellow citizens were so illiterate in the science of political economy; and it was almost as a missionary to the gentiles that he zealously promoted Destutt Tracy's volume on Political Economy. The ignorance of its doctrines, he maintained, had "threatened irreparable dis

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