Alexander Campbell and Thomas Jefferson
A Comparative Study of Two Old Virginians


    Not only did both of these old Virginians build a college of his own liking, but they both promoted an educational philosophy that was far in advance of their time. It is also interesting that both men saw such a relationship between education and aesthetics that each played an important role in the architectural plans of his college. Jefferson drew his designs from "chaste models taken from the finest remains of antiquity," especially from Greece and Rome; while Campbell was inspired by his own University of Glasgow.

    The University of Virginia, established in 1819, could boast of having three former presidents of the United States on its board (Madison, Monroe, Jefferson), at the same time, the only college in history that can make such a boast. Bethany College, founded in 1840, did however have one president on its board and that while he was in office--J. W. Garfield, a great personal friend and admirer of Alexander Campbell. Bethany's first faculty was composed largely of men who were either products of Jefferson's university or admirers of it. Campbell even used the same menu in his dining hall as was followed at the University of Virginia.

    An even more interesting parallel between these two institutions is that each ruled out of its curriculum any offering in theology. The Monticello educator explained this to the religionists as an effort to keep church and state separate, but a better reason was likely that he did not consider theology good education. And so with Campbell. It is in the charter of Bethany College that there is never to be a theological professorship, and yet Bethany, unlike Virginia, was an independent "church" college. It is simply a matter of Campbell not believing in theology--or rather theologians!

    The editor of the Chicago Tribune remarked in 1880 that "It somehow happens that now and then a man lives who seems to have in his head every important idea that all his countrymen together get into theirs for a century after he is dead." He went on to say that almost any new project of human welfare was anticipated "and likely enough the whole identical plan worked out in detail, somewhere in Jefferson's writings." This appears to be particularly true regarding education, for he postulated a plan for public education as early as 1778, a plan not unlike that which finally came into being generations later. It called for three distinct grades of education: elementary schools for all children; colleges (or secondary schools) for further common education for the more capable; university for the teaching of the sciences in their highest degree and to the most capable.

    It was with this educational plan that he introduced the idea of government by wards, based on the old English "hundred" system of one hundred families to a unity. He would divide each county into several wards of five or six miles square. Each ward would have its common school on the elementary level for the teaching of reading, writing, and arithmetic. The school would be supported by the ward, and each child would attend three years free of charge and as much longer as the parents wish at their own expense.

    These wards would be under the scrutiny of supervisors who would annually select from each ward the most promising children for further education. His plan called for twenty secondary schools scattered across Virginia where these select students would study Greek, Latin, geography and higher arithmetic. One "genius" would be selected from each school every year or two for six more years of advanced study. At the end of the six years the best ten of the twenty would be sent on to a university for three years, the rest dismissed.

    He insisted that this plan would provide a basic education for all, rich and poor alike, and that it would make possible advanced training for Virginia's brightest youth who would otherwise be lost to the state's great need for talent. Since the Russian Sputnik went into orbit America has been very conscious of its gifted youth, and in recent years thousands of programs have been initiated in our schools for the purpose of enriching their education. That Jefferson as early as 1787 proposed a plan of public education that provided special training for gifted youth is a commentary on how slow we are in catching up with the thinking of our greatest minds. He realized at the very birth of our republic that our greatest natural resource was the talented mind. We have not erred in trying to educate everyone, for he too saw the need for this, but we have erred in trying to educate everybody alike. Jefferson knew better.

    He believed that the education of the people is the best guardian of liberty. Since those in power tend "by slow operations" to pervert it into tyranny, the most effectual means of preventing this is to illuminate the minds of the people at large. "It becomes expedient for promoting the public happiness that those persons whom Nature hath endowed with genius and virtue should be rendered by liberal education worthy to receive and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens." (Russell, op cit, p. 51)

    Education was therefore closely related to his political theory: "Whenever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government." As for the ends to be realized in education, he made this clear in his six objects of primary education which he stated in 1818. These aims, which according to some "ought to be emblazoned in letters of gold in every schoolroom of the land," are as follows:

    1. To give every citizen the information he needs for the transaction of his own business.

    2. To enable him to calculate for himself, and to express and preserve his ideas, his contracts and accounts, in writing.

    3. To improve, by reading, his morals and faculties.

    4. To understand his duties to his neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either.

    5. To know his rights.

    6. To observe with intelligence and faithfulness all the social relations under which he shall be placed.

    Emerson once said that "an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man." In many respects the University of Virginia was a reflection of its illustrious founder, for it embodied what Jefferson believed necessary for a prosperous future for America. Even though he became a Governor of a great state, Ambassador to France, Secretary of State, Vice-President, and even President of the United States, he wished to be remembered above all as Father of the University of Virginia. To him the university was a citadel of liberty, a bulwark of freedom, and an invitation to intelligence and maturity. Nothing else he ever did "showed him more clearly to be a major American prophet," as one of his present-day biographers describes his work with the university, is an appraisal that would please him greatly.

    It was not until about 1850 that the United States established on an extensive basis systems of elementary education. Afterwards came the public high schools and colleges. Alexander Campbell joined such contemporaries as Horace Mann and Henry Barnard in an effort to realize Jefferson's ideal of free education for all. In 1838, when he was contemplating the founding of his own private college, he wrote as follows regarding public education:

    I am perhaps too sensitive on the subject of education; but, really, I regard my brethren and my fellow-citizens as generally too remiss in this great matter. If I had a thousand votes in the State they should all go for universal education at public expense. I would make the literary and moral education of every child born on the territory of the commonwealth the first and paramount duty of the State.

    In the absence of such provision, he said he would encourage Sunday schools, private schools, church schools wherever they are possible, for "I go for schools of every sort so long as there is one of my neighbor's children uneducated." In his efforts to convince people of the wisdom of public education he was confronted with the same old excuse: it is too expensive. His answer to this was that the people of Virginia were already spending as much money to educate only part of the children inadequately as it would take to educate all of them properly in a state-wide system.

    He also pointed out that the "vicious mass of ignorance, idleness, and crime" is costing more in terms of courts, prisons and law enforcement than it would cost to banish these evils through proper education. This was a key point in his educational philosophy: intelligence and virtue are the safeguards of life, liberty, reputation and property; and these can be realized only through education. (Mill. Harb. 1, p. 555) Jefferson had said very much the same thing. Both believed that America's future depended upon the moral character of its people, and that character can be developed only through education. It is the free mind that is the issue in the thinking of both men.

    Campbell's educational philosophy is best expressed perhaps in the many addresses he gave through the years to teachers' conventions. In 1841 he was asked to lecture in Clarksburg, Virginia to a convention called for the purpose of setting up common schools in that part of the state. Unable to attend personally, he sent a long manuscript to be read by another in which he gave his views on two lively questions: what kind of education is best adapted to the needs of the community and how are schools to be made truly common and accessible to all?

    In this presentation he spoke often of the "educated mind" and what it means to a community. Everything from the skill of the cultivator and the manufacturer to the mariner's compass and the steam-engine belong to society only because of educated mind. He concluded, therefore, that in due time society would look to the schoolmaster and the district school more than to mighty generals and standing armies and immense navies. We are beginning to see that "it would be less expensive to educate an infant than to support an aged criminal in a state prison." He posed an ethical question: does a society have a right to punish a man for crimes that grow out of conditions that society itself has imposed through neglect and indifference?

    As with Jefferson, Campbell sees education as basically moral, and so he speaks of "education which is essential to their clear discrimination of right and wrong." He mentions also that "the intellectual and moral improvement of all the mind belonging to the State" should be the first concern of the people. Another important insight into his philosophy of education is his freedom and education: "intelligence and freedom are but two names for the same thing." To be free one must be intelligent; an ignorant community is always enslaved. With the Greek philosophers the sages of Monticello and Bethany would both agree that man is morally obligated to be intelligent.

    What is good education? Campbell insists that the answer to this question depends upon understanding the nature of man. And so the teacher cannot truly educate until he sees his students as sensitive, intellectual, and moral beings who have an ultimate destiny. He goes on, like Jefferson, to list certain objectives of primary education, which he calls the seven arts. These are: the art of thinking, the art of speaking, the art of reading, the art of singing, the art of writing, the art of calculating, the art of bookkeeping.

    In teaching these arts one will have to teach more or less the following: orthography, orthoepy, grammar, arithmetic, geometry, algebra, music, elocution. He emphasizes geography, physics, political science and history--"especially the history of our own country"--and "the admirable science of self-knowledge." This would include what we now call psychology as well as philosophy and physiology. He points out that "the laws of physical health" should be taught in the classroom. The pupil should come to understand that he is "fearfully and wonderfully made" by learning about the body. He quotes an educator that laments that students are not taught "the causes of good and bad health nor the physical consequences of immoral conduct."

    When I wrote my master's thesis on The Educational Philosophy of Alexander Campbell at Southern Methodist University my examining committee was more impressed with Campbell's emphasis upon health education than any other. They figured that he was something like a century ahead of his day in this regard. Perhaps it would not be an oversimplification to say that his educational theory can be summed up in his view of man's knowledge of three books: the book of Nature (physics, biology, geography, etc.), the book of Human Nature (psychology, sociology, etc.), the book of God, the Bible (moral and spiritual education).

    The last point was the most vital of all to Campbell, for he placed the Bible at the very center of a man's education, both at the college level and in the primary grades. "To educate the head and neglect the heart is only giving teeth to the lion" he would say, and by educating "the heart" he refers to a Bible education. To have schools without Bible and moral training is a natural calamity that should not be tolerated by any civilized community. He avowed that there is a way to teach what he called "common Christianity" in the public schools, which would be the inculcation of the great fundamental truths believed alike by all parties of Christendom. There is a common ground on which "all Christian people can unite, harmonize, and cooperate in one great system of moral and Christian education." (Mill. Harb. 12, p. 443f.)

    All these ideas were presumably embodied in the founding of Bethany College, which was at first a kind of educational colony rather than a mere college. There was an elementary school for pupils from 7 to 14 years, an academy for those above 14 (agriculture, mechanics, etc. "more scientific and extensive than is usually allowed"), the College Proper ("a very liberal education both literary and scientific"), and finally a Normal School for the training of teachers. He stipulated that in all these departments "physical and moral education must keep pace with the intellectual and no young gentleman will be allowed to devote all his energies to the mere improvement of intellect at the expense or hazard of his moral and physical constitution."

    Students at Bethany were not only fed the same menu as those at the University of Virginia, but were likewise on the same academic diet, for both institutions were well ahead of their time in emphasizing mathematics and science as well as classical literature. The big difference between the schools reflects the big difference between their founders, for Bethany, while not a Bible college, was founded upon the Bible. The Bible is at the center of the sources that provide an understanding of man and the universe, Campbell believed, with science, mathematics and world literature revolving around the Bible, illustrating it and corroborating it as God's revelation to man.

    Jefferson would, of course, agree in part. After all, he too issued a Bible; and he too saw the ethics of Jesus as the strongest moral force in the world. But the Bible was safeguarded by the clergy in Jefferson's day, and with the clergy came priestcraft and sectarian bigotry, none of which Jefferson wanted. We believe that if he could have seen how Campbell related the Bible to all the arts and sciences, and as the key to understanding both man and the universe, he would have been so impressed that he would have been glad to have had the Sage of Bethany on his university faculty.