Liberal Education

WWTJD_1316 Liberal Education.jpg
You can have all the information in the world, but it doesn’t mean anything unless you have a mental matrix with which to absorb it, evaluate it, analyze it, begin to synthesize it. That’s why we go to college.
— Clay S. Jenkinson portraying Thomas Jefferson

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The following is a rush transcript.

David Swenson: 00:00 Good day, citizens, and welcome to What Would Jefferson Do?, our weekly opportunity to discuss current American events with President Thomas Jefferson, who's seated across from me now. Good day to you, Mr Jefferson.

Clay S. Jenkinson as Thomas Jefferson: 00:13 Good day to you, citizen.

DS: 00:14 Mr Jefferson, I had occasion to talk about our Constitutional Convention recently, and I believe it was Mr Franklin who was asked by a woman at the end of the convention what the Convention had left the country with, and he said, "A republic"

CSJ as TJ: 00:32 "If you can keep it."

DS: 00:33 "If you can keep it."

CSJ as TJ: 00:35 Yes, a woman. They had a gag order. They had operated in complete secrecy. They were forbidden to talk about it outside of what's now known as Independence Hall, and so people were very curious and would often linger about the square, hoping that they might ascertain something about what the Constitution was going to be. And then finally when it was over, the elderly Franklin came out. He was carried back and forth in a sedan chair. He was like a world celebrity who also spoke a few times, and very meaningfully, to the Constitutional Convention. And when they came out, a woman accosted him and said, "Dr Franklin, what have you produced?" And he said, "A republic, if you can keep it."

DS: 01:16 And you said something similar about a nation being ignorant and free.

CSJ as TJ: 01:21 I did. This was to my beloved mentor George Wythe. I believe that we can only be a republic if we have a well-informed, well-educated citizenry. And so I said, if you expect to be a nation to ignorant and free, you expect what never has been and never can be in a state of civilization.

DS: 01:38 What led me to recall these two statements is something I heard from a current commentator who said that one of the problems with American society today is that we have so much data, in other words, so much available information. And we exhibit so little wisdom. How do we deal with that, Mr Jefferson?

CSJ as TJ: 01:58 Well, first of all, thank goodness for information. One of my three heroes, Francis Bacon, an Elizabethan, famously said, knowledge is power. And in his scientific treatises, Bacon said, we must gather facts. We must patiently gather facts and data, avoiding synthesis or judgment, and only after we have gathered sufficient numbers of facts can we begin to look for patterns and to make some generalizations about the nature of the world. So knowledge is power, and to be held in ignorance is the worst possible thing. That's why every despot shuts down the press, shuts down free speech, because they don't want their people to have information with which they might resist the tyranny of that despot or that dictator. So I'm in favor of information. In your day, perhaps you have so much information that it overstimulates the people, but I would rather have that than the reverse by far.

CSJ as TJ: 03:03 What's the answer? The answer is liberal education. In other words, you can have all the information in the world, but it doesn't mean anything unless you have a mental matrix with which to absorb it, evaluate it, analyze it, begin to synthesize it. That's why we go to college. That's why we have university. So you take a young man from Virginia or Pennsylvania, or in your time a young woman, and you get them to read Saint Augustine and Aristotle and maybe learn Greek and Latin and they read some Shakespeare and some Alexander Pope and Chaucer, and they read the works of Montesquieu or Voltaire, and on the basis of all of that information, all of those perspectives, they begin to re-examine how they see the world, and it deepens them, and gives them a sense of other possibilities in life. And it brings them into critical skills of knowing what is nonsense and what is good sense.

CSJ as TJ: 03:59 And so you have to have information, but information without that developed human consciousness is of little value.

DS: 04:07 Right. Pessimistic. And certainly sir, I try not to be. I might think that it's a case of Americans today being complacent.

CSJ as TJ: 04:16 I certainly would agree with that as a general proposition. I can't speak to the quality of the citizenry of your time, but let me say this, that liberty is elusive. You have to work at it every day. It requires eternal vigilance. It can be lost quickly if you don't maintain that level of obsessive zeal on behalf of liberty and a deep revulsion towards any moment of authoritarianism. So yes, liberty is not something that can ever be taken for granted.

DS: 04:54 Thank you very much, Mr Jefferson.

CSJ as TJ: 04:56 You are most welcome, sir.

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