If you ever ask a UVA student if they think Thomas Jefferson’s ideas hold value today, many might answer with disinterest at best and disdain at worst. At his own university, attacks against Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence and father of American public education, are frequent. From ahistorical libel in the classroom to campaigns to remove his iconic statue in front of the Rotunda, his legacy at UVA is at stake. This is unfortunate, given how much younger generations can benefit from Jefferson’s timeless ideals of individual liberty and the pursuit of educational freedom.
Thankfully, there are still student organizations on Grounds that seek to hold honest, in-depth discussions about Jefferson, in a culture that is increasingly hostile to open debate. The Jefferson Literary and Debating Society held one of these events on Friday, February 18th at 7:29 PM for the first night of their semester-long distinguished speaker series. Invited were Leslie Bowman, President of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation (which owns and preserves Monticello), and Manu Meel, CEO of BridgeUSA, an organization that sets out to improve political dialogue on college campuses. Both spent their time at the Society facilitating a discussion on the relevance and value of Jefferson’s teachings for current and future students.
Held in the historical setting of Hotel C on the West Range, the event saw approximately 40 attendees, almost all of them students. Before and after the event, both speakers mixed with the audience answering questions, continuing debates, or giving advice to the very engaged listeners. Bowman and Meel were approachable and engaging on and off the stage, and were more than willing to share their knowledge with the audience.
Being a member of the Committee for the Preservation of the White House under four U.S. Presidents, Bowman gave complex accounts of Thomas Jefferson’s time period and legacy. Meel, on the other hand, brought Jefferson’s ideas out of the realm of the abstract and made them approachable and dynamic for the students of today, seeking to cultivate open political discourse.
The latter proved to be the predominant theme of the evening. Both speakers repeatedly pointed to Thomas Jefferson’s insistence on the importance of education. “Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of the body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day,” the third President of the United States once famously said. As Meel reminded the guests, democracy is a fragile construct. Many born and raised in the United States, tend to take their freedoms for granted. But as countries like China, Russia, and Iran prove, tyranny is still alive and well centuries after the Enlightenment. What these countries have in common, Meel explained, is the suppression of thought. It is education, he said, that ignites the human mind and builds the foundation for democracy.
From there, Bowman continued to emphasize the concept of the marketplace of ideas, a principle that was dear to Jefferson. She alluded to the “feasts of reason” Jefferson held at Monticello— he would invite friends (and political opponents) to his private estate to discuss all kinds of topics over dinner. Following the event, the attendees would have their own “feast of reason” over pizza. She alluded that perhaps this tradition ought to be reintroduced.
Over the last couple of months, education and debate have become the most defining and divisive topics in current political discourse. With Critical Race Theory, the 1619 Project, and radical sexual ideologies infiltrating America’s classrooms, many concerned parents have been left wondering if educational freedom—what Thomas Jefferson envisioned for this country—still exists at UVA and schools across the country, or if the tyranny of mind he dreaded has taken its toll on Western society. Bowman made a notable point that, in education, nuance matters. There is no black-and-white version of history.
Following her years-long study of Jefferson, she concluded that Jefferson was a man too complex for the narrow-minded conclusions many have drawn about him since his death. To acknowledge the bad of slavery and to admit that Jefferson, in some respects, failed to live up to his own ideals, does not automatically mean that everything he did, including his persistence in bringing revolutionary ideas like liberty to the forefront of American life, must be denigrated. Bowman argued that this concept should be extended to all of American history. Regarding the current education debate, she asserted that teachers should not ignore the flaws of the past, but they should also reestablish the notion that their students live in the greatest democracy in the world— a democracy that would not exist without the brave and timeless words of Thomas Jefferson.
Among Jefferson’s most tried and true words are those in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. This phrase has inspired generations of Americans to reach greatness. But closing in on the Declaration’s 250th anniversary, that positive outlook seems to have vanished among today’s youth. In one of the debate’s most moving moments, Meel asked the audience to raise their hands if they felt pessimistic about the future of the nation. Most arms went up. Meel then said he has observed that this sentiment is felt on both sides of the aisle.
In 2022, many young Americans feel like the words of the Declaration no longer matter to them. For the people in the room, upbeat sentiment seemed to be clouded by ongoing lockdowns, rampant inflation, and the decline of traditional social values which look to be undermining God-given rights. For left-leaning students, a bleak outlook might be due to racism, student loan debt, or climate change that make them doubt that the Pursuit of Happiness exists for them in this country. But as both Bowman and Meel pointed out, the best reason to be optimistic lies in America’s own history. No matter what it has been, Americans have always pushed forward. Both guests encouraged the students in attendance not to disregard the Declaration, or any other of Jefferson’s ideas, as relics of a distant past. Instead, they asserted that students today should look to the teachings of Jefferson as a kind of North Star. Eternal wisdom, they confirmed, is the best guide to greatness in life.
After an extended Q&A session, the evening ended with great applause. Even the most probing questions asked of Bowman and Meel were answered gracefully. Is the emphasis on bipartisan understanding not a slippery slope into effete centrism? Does the marketplace of ideas grant a place to harmful ideologies in our curricula? Can we find common moral values in a religiously liberal society? These were not easy questions to answer, but the debate remained respectful, and that was refreshing to see. In the end, nobody left the room without at least one new thought to wrap their head around. The ever-relevant Thomas Jefferson would be proud.