To the Editor:
Tom Shuford’s thoughtful Commentary on whether Thomas Jefferson can speak to us today (“Jefferson on Education,” July 14, 2004) merits a response.
It has been 200 years since Jefferson spoke about the needs for educating America’s future. Our future has changed; our population has changed; our commitment to education has changed, at least in intent if not in practice.
At the time of the making of this country, diversity was not an issue to be discussed. Jefferson, an educated man, kept slaves and felt that perhaps the elite should be educated at the expense of the rest. Well, “the rest” has become the core of our society today, and we can ill afford to discard them.
Neither can school attendance be voluntary today, as Jefferson might have wished. We must educate all of our children, albeit perhaps at different levels. And we must be the guardians of liberty for the sake of democracy and our future. Thus all children must learn history, geography, and literature, as our third president would have had it. But no child should be “selected out” after a few years of education. We already make too many assumptions about children.
Perhaps, after providing a strong, standardized curriculum and a high intensity of teaching effort to all students through the early secondary level, we could then offer students the opportunity to take different tracks toward their futures. But no track should eliminate children, and none should be outside their reach. And all tracks should continue with mathematics, literature, and science.
Any “selection” made in school should view merit as including both promise as well as outcomes. If we truly believe in all children, we need to do more to bring out the promise of so many who have endured so much and come to school with two strikes against them. We must educate children early with several languages, and educate teachers to teach children well.
We need vision and commitment, both of which we seem to have lost. Take the best of Jefferson, mold it in with our concept of democracy, freedom, and literacy, train teachers more professionally, pay them more to get the brightest into the field, and then be ready to see how well we can educate all the American children. It is possible, but only if the commitment is really there at the national, state, and local levels.
St. Louis, Mo.