Jefferson insisted in the last year of his life that the university would be “now qualified to raise its youth to an order of science unequalled in any other state; and this superiority will be greater than the free range of mind encouraged there, and the restraint imposed at other seminaries by the shackles of a domineering hierarchy and a bigoted adhesion to ancient habits.”
– Willard Sterne Randall, Jefferson: A Life
Thomas Jefferson must be doing a Triple Lutz in his grave right now. The author of the Declaration of Independence spent the last decade of his life focused on a project that serves as a fitting epilogue to all that he had contributed to the world. If American democracy may be viewed as a vessel to channel the power of free thinking people to actively shape and improve society, the University of Virginia was Jefferson’s experiment in how to train people to become precisely the kind of citizens that democracy requires.
Just as one day Adolph Hitler would epitomize the opposite of free society through the hideous invention of the concentration camp, Jefferson capped off a lifetime of molding the concept of democracy by designing its model institution and incubator, the public university. So the University of Virginia is more than just one of the world’s great centers of learning, more than the campus that the American Institute of Architects proclaimed in 1976 as “the proudest achievement of American architecture in the past 200 years.” It is also a symbol of the freedom of thought, of democracy – and of the great man who planted those seeds in Virginia soil almost 200 years ago.
This is the institution now under attack by Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.
Jefferson had long been obsessed with the question of how to raise the educational level of his beloved Commonwealth. Upon retiring from the presidency, he came up with a grand scheme to divide each county into wards that would each support a primary school to teach basic literacy. Each county would then have its own secondary school for those who sought higher educational attainment, and finally the state would have one great public university to raise its best students to the highest levels of scholarship.
The Virginia legislature took a pass on the broader scheme but appointed a commission to choose the site of a state university. Jefferson recruited his great protégé, James Madison (recently retired from his own stint as president), to help him with planning this institution and set about putting all the pieces in place. That included designing the buildings, of course, as well as recruiting the faculty (which he drew from Europe).
Plus every other conceivable aspect of the university, including its curriculum. Considering all the fluff that conservatives like to throw out about how supposedly religious the Founders were, it’s worth considering the following passage from Joseph J. Ellis’s American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson:
Jefferson tended to associate restrictions on freedom of thought with religious creeds and doctrinal rules demanded by established churches. One of the most distinctive features of the University of Virginia was its disavowal of any religious affiliation – virtually all the major colleges in the nation up to this time had defined themselves as seminaries for particular denominations of religious sects – and Jefferson went so far as to prohibit the teaching of theology altogether. He was also extremely sensitive to the way boards of trustees at other American colleges, usually dominated by the clergy, imposed restrictions on what could be taught or what books could be read. He was absolutely insistent that his university not succumb to such forms of censorship.
There you have it – again, the whole purpose of the University of Virginia was and is the promotion of free, constructive thought. So as this university determines how to respond to Cuccinelli’s malignant attempt to investigate and potentially prosecute a professor for pursuing ideas that our Attorney General finds politically inconvenient, let’s be clear that there is only one viable option here – and that is to say NO. To capitulate in any way to this act of tyranny would be to deny the whole purpose of this university – indeed, of any university – by removing the protection that academia provides for professors and students to pursue the truth unfettered by government meddling.
A University of Virginia that surrenders to such a “civil investigative demand” would cease to be Jefferson’s University of Virginia. If the university goes that route, then it might as well just tear down the Rotunda and replace it with a big statue of the boot of government stomping on a human brain. Surrendering to Cuccinelli’s anti-democratic demand would mean giving in to “the restraint imposed at other seminaries by the shackles of a domineering hierarchy and a bigoted adhesion to ancient habits.” It would take us back 200 years. And no, Mr. Cuccinelli, we’re not going back there.
U-VA needs to resist, with our support, for lots of reasons. At the very least, we ought to give Jefferson’s corpse a little rest.