Thursday, October 25, 2012

Seeking your inner Jefferson.

This past weekend I had the opportunity to visit Monticello, the home of President Thomas Jefferson . For those that know me, Jefferson has always had a special place in my heart. Most people will recognize him for his accomplishments which include being the main writer of the Declaration of Independence,  the  third President of the United States and the founder and  father of the University of Virginia. Modern American political parties each claim Jefferson as one of their Founding Fathers. The left will claim him because of his  views on religious freedom and separation of church and state. The right will claim him because he was a staunch believer in small government.  His ability to support political views while immediately contradicting others is something I chuckle at every time someone uses Jefferson's words to support their beliefs.   Jefferson, the man, is a contradiction. The "American Sphinx" as Joseph Ellis calls him, seems so familiar to us, yet also completely inaccessible at times.  We must also acknowledge that there is a vast difference between what he says and writes, and what he does.  This holds many back from fully appreciating Jefferson as he was. (Not that I have a firm grasp on that either.) Jefferson was fallible, human, imperfect, and complex.

Much like I do each time I visit Independence Hall or Valley Forge, whenever I visit Monticello I feel a strong connection to our past. This feeling is part emotion and part  intellect in that it provides me an opportunity to both appreciate and learn.  As a group of 20 of us sat in his "experimental garden" eating a salad made up of vegetables historians know he grew, I found myself connecting even more deeply to who Jefferson was in his time.  Amidst the warm glowing foliage and the crisp fall air, I realized that Jefferson still speaks to us in the 21st century. And as an educator,  I also am coming to recognize that  Jefferson, the learner, has huge implications for us all. After all, he was a pro-education kind of guy.

 Jefferson grew up on a plantation, the child of a wealthy Virginia planter and surveyor. He had every opportunity a "rich kid" could be afforded: including private tutoring.  In Jefferson's writings, he acknowledges that among the greatest gifts his father could have ever afforded him,  requiring him to learn Latin was one of them . Learning Latin exposed him to more than just the "classics", as it opened his world up to more than philosophy or literature. It exposed him to architecture, gardening, and  physical science (among many other areas) which became passions of Jefferson's throughout his life.

 While serving in the Virginia legislature, Jefferson staunchly advocated for a publicly supported (ie: taxes) education system for all in Virginia. Despite having the opportunity to be classically and privately trained. He believed that all Virginians (but not African American slaves) , despite their station, should be afforded the same opportunities he did. That an informed society was more apt to solve problems together and create a better society as a whole.  (His timing was poor as we were in the midst of the American Revolution and Virginian's proved not willing to pay yet more taxes.)  In his retirement, he organized and oversaw the building of  the University of Virginia.

"Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia in 1819. He wished the publicly-supported school to have a national character and stature. Jefferson envisioned a new kind of university, one dedicated to educating leaders in practical affairs and public service rather than for professions in the classroom and pulpit exclusively. It was the first nonsectarian university in the United States and the first to use the elective course system." 
University of Virginia

It's important to note that in his original designs for the university, Jefferson sought true educational freedom, allowing students to determine their course or path of learning. 

We know that Jefferson loved to learn. If he found a book he wanted to read, but it was in a different language than one of the ones he already knew, he taught himself how to read that language. Jefferson learned 8 languages in his lifetime, most of which were self taught. Jefferson was a just-in-time learner. He used the technology of the day  to be more efficient. When Jefferson wanted an easier or better way to do something, he customized or invented it. He was creative. He was methodical and scientific.  He would read books, collect specimens, and through trial and error, come to the best version of whatever it was he needed.  He failed a million times, yet the process never seemed to discourage him from moving forward and learning more.

This past weekend, I learned that Jefferson was a globally connected learner, a collaborator, a sharer, especially when it came to his garden.  He planted over 350 types of flowers, plants, vegetables, and fruits in his garden from places all over the world. (He had less interest in what was already native to Virginia.)  Friends and colleagues knew that one of his passions was experimenting in his garden, so they sent him seeds from their travels. Strangers would send him specimens and he would return the favor by sharing seeds from his own garden. This practice continues to this day at Monticello as you can buy seeds grown in the garden there.

Jefferson was reflective as evidenced in the countless letters and journals he wrote, along with the meticulous record keeping he did. His entire volumes of writings are still being transcribed into book form despite a decade of the process. His friendship with John Adams, especially in their twilight years provides us tremendous insight into how both of these men viewed themselves and the changing times.

I often wonder how Jefferson would view modern life and I suspect that while he would recognize very little of it, he would be aptly suited to live and thrive in 2012. Modern  technologies would give him unbridled access to experts around the globe and information that he could use to answer the deeper questions he frequently asked of himself. It would allow him to be more creative and inventive. Jefferson didn't purse knowledge or information alone, he pursued understanding. He recognized that  knowledge and information helped support the answer to the greater questions of why or how.  If we take one lesson from the learner Jefferson was, it should be that filling our lives with passions fuel a desire to learn. And that the desire to learn and the routes and paths we take to get there,  happen in ways that are unique to each and every one of us. As educators, we must grab hold of our inner Jefferson:   Be creative, be willing to fail and learn from those failures, be connected (both locally and globally), be collaborative, be a sharer, be reflective, and most of all, be willing to afford your students those same opportunities. Be passionate. Be a learner.

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