Blocking Jeffersonian Lessons at Mr. Jefferson’s University

Loyal readers of Eduflack know that I am a proud alumnus of the University of Virginia. As a Wahoo, I spent my college years believing the University’s founder was a deity. We spoke of Mr. Jefferson has if he had just stepped away to grab some lunch on the Corner. We revered the Jeffersonian ideal and what we thought it stood for.

In recent years, it hasn’t been so popular to be a fan of Thomas (nor has it been particularly popular for Eduflack to have many of the heroes he has, as I wrote about last year.) In our zeal to judge leaders of the past by today’s standards, we are quick to condemn.

I get that Thomas Jefferson is a complicated figure in our history. And I get that he is completely dissed (and mischaracterized) in the smash Broadway hit Hamilton. But Jefferson is a Founding Father. He was our third president. He helped expand the fledgling United States into the country that we largely recognize today.

Despite all of that, he noted three accomplishments on his tombstone, which reads, “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and father of the University of Virginia.”

Yes, founding U.Va. was one of the Jefferson’s top three accomplishments, more significant to him that serving as president. Thomas Jefferson is the University of Virginia, and U.Va. is TJ.

So it was shocking to see a group of University professors write to U.Va. President Sullivan asking that she stop quoting the University’s founder and father. My alma mater, The Cavalier Daily, reports that these professors noted:

We would like for our administration to understand that although some members of this community may have come to this university because of Thomas Jefferson’s legacy, others of us came here in spite of it. For many of us, the inclusion of Jefferson quotations in these e-mails undermines the message of unity, equality and civility that you are attempting to convey.

Almost a year to the day, I wrote about how college campuses need to stop being so cavalier about First Amendment rights. That we needed to stop promoting this “do as I say, not as I do” approach to free speech, recognizing that such rights are absolute and not based on what an individual may find in contrast to their personal life mission or sensibilities.

I’m not naive. I get that many these days would not put Jefferson on their personal Mount Rushmores. But I would hope that those individuals would also recognize that Jefferson’s stands as one of the most influential writers and thinkers in the founding of this nation. I’d particularly hope that college professors, particularly those at Mr. Jefferson’s University, could respect the words of Jefferson helped establish this nation, helped shape modern thinking on political liberty, and that cemented the divisions between church and state.

I’d also hope that those who take no issue in drawing a paycheck from Mr. Jefferson’s University yet take every issue with his words would be a little more open-minded about reading some of the words he wrote nearly a quarter of a millennia ago.

As a student at the U.Va., I spent more hours than I can count working at The Cavalier Daily, the independent daily student newspaper of Mr. Jefferson’s University. Each morning, we would publish a new edition under some poignant words written by Jefferson:

“For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

These words become particularly important in light of President Sullivan’s letter and her message of bringing the University community together. It is unfortunate that the sensitivities of some professors would seek to shut down such a dialogue by finding offense in the words of one messenger, the most important messenger in the University’s history.

We can only hope that reason continues to thrive at the University of Virginia, and that the lessons of its founder can be used to lead important discussions and guide equally important actions.

Seeking to restrict speech by removing Jeffersonian quotes from communications is an affront to the lessons of freedom and liberty that the University of Virginia was built on, and of ideals we would hope college professors were teaching on campuses throughout the country.

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