Thomas Jefferson and academic freedom

Thomas Jefferson’s Conception of ‘Academic Freedom’ and Its Current Condition in American Higher Education

Garrett Ward Sheldon
The John Morton Beaty Professor of Political and Social Sciences, The University of Virginia’s College at Wise.

‘Here we are not afraid to follow the truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error, so long as reason is left free to combat it.’ -Thomas Jefferson

THOMAS JEFFERSON’S CONCEPTION OF ‘Academic Freedom’ became the standard of modern intellectual progress in America and the world. Its components of both individual freedom of inquiry in expression and debate along with lively, free and tolerant academic community were seen as essential to all other forms of progress: political, economic, social and ethical. This Jeffersonian ideal of Academic Freedom in the university and all its positive effects on the rest of American Society has come under assault throughout history from religious bigotry, social intolerance, and political ideology, most recently from the federal government’s expansion of the Title IX law during the past six years. It almost destroyed university knowledge and learning, the lively academic community as well as their attendant social and personal benefits.

Individual Expression in an Academic Community

Jefferson’s conception of Academic Freedom within the University of Virginia contained both a component of individual freedom to inquire into, express, and debate all manner of thoughts and ideas, and an academic environment conducive to such intellectual activity in a lively, tolerant, confident, and pleasant community. It is no coincidence that Jefferson referred to the University of Virginia as an ‘Academic Village.’ True learning, knowledge, truth, and education as well as discovering new meaning and developing thinking and human reasoning abilities require both individual liberty to pursue knowledge and a collegial environment that encourages and rewards such intellectual pursuits. Both the individual mind and the creative society will benefit from such academic freedom. It requires an open, free atmosphere for the expression of all perspectives: questioning, discussion, debate, and ongoing learning. A free and open atmosphere leads to the development of individual abilities, creativity, and happiness as well as advances in science, technology, economics, politics, and ethics. The intellectual progress of the University of Virginia for Jefferson was the engine behind American democracy and freedom.[1]

This perspective goes back to Jefferson’s knowledge of classical western philosophy. Jefferson drew inspiration from the Ancient Greek saw, ‘Know thyself,’ etched on the wall of the Oracle at Delphi, Socrates’ quote in Plato’s Apology, ‘the unexamined life is not worth living,’[2] and Aristotle’s insistence that every person is a social animal (politikon zoon),[3] whose proper end is achieved through ‘reasoned speech’ and ‘moral choice.’ Jefferson saw intellectual freedom and growth through reasoned discussion and discovery as the fulfillment of that highest human, rational nature, as well as the development of the most humane, prosperous, and happy society.

Prior to ‘Mr. Jefferson’s University’, most American colleges were tied to a religious denomination restricting areas of inquiry and discoveries. Like the recent Title IX restrictions on certain words or subjects, this limited the intellectual life and stifled individual and social development. Instead of a lively, fun atmosphere, there existed a closed, suspicious and fearful environment, hardly conducive to education. Even in the old universities of England—e.g., Oxford and Cambridge, upon which many American colleges were modeled, with their Socratic ‘tutorials’ of pupils presenting arguments to their teachers and defending them from questions and objections—many areas of religious and political information were ‘off limits.’ They were simply not discussed because they were heretical, dangerous, and subversive; punishable, if expressed or entertained.

For Jeffersonian higher education, the answer to such ‘bad’ ideas was not suppression and censorship, but their refutation by better ideas, found through good, reasonable argument. As he wrote in defense of religious liberty, ‘Truth is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless, by human interposition, disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to confront them.’[4] Jefferson’s declaration of free speech broke with centuries of restrictions of the mind and discourse in higher education. It saw open discussion, aimed at truth by clashing with and defeating error, as the best means to knowledge, progress, and justice. As Jefferson said to John Adams (1 Aug. 1816): ‘Bigotry is the disease of ignorance…. Education and free discussion are the antidotes.’ Applying this ‘free marketplace of ideas’ to the University of Virginia, its founder wrote to William Roscoe (27 Dec. 1820), ‘This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind, [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.’ Debating all sides of an issue would ‘distill’ the truth (or as much as we can know of it) and ready the mind to approach all new problems and situations.

Professors were to embody that liberal, tolerant approach by encouraging students to examine all ideas in a detached, objective way. Elevating reason over emotion, as the British philosopher John Stuart Mill later wrote in his classic defense of intellectual freedom. On Liberty, the liberally educated person would welcome hearing views contrary to his own, and in their most persuasive form, because they would either convert him to a better, more sustainable view, or strengthen his existing view by recognition of their errors. Such free debate requires, besides reasoning skills, humility, for stubborn intolerance and oppression and usually borne of arrogant, unbudging pride. Such free debate also requires an attitude of Socratic ‘wisdom’—that is, knowing that one does not know,[5] and therefore, humbly seeking the truth. This is not weakness or inferiority, but strength and confidence. Jefferson wanted an American republic full of such strong, confident citizens, so intellectually prepared that they could debate any topic, to the benefit of the best policies, the most just society, and happy and thriving individuals. Only a tyrannical state, with weak and ignorant rulers, would deny such freedom of speech and enforce censorship to stunt economic, political, and social progress.

The sort of academic freedom Jefferson envisaged at the University of Virginia was crucial to his conception of progressive, useful education and a thriving democracy, because it would train leaders in liberal values—justice, freedom, moral sensitivity, and worthwhile industry—and set a global example for other institutions. A rigid, cold, harsh regime—whether Nazi Germany or Soviet Communism of the past, or today the American Title IX bureaucracy, which rules with censorship and fear, spying, interrogation, and persecution of ‘forbidden’ ideas – invariably produces the most narrow and vicious leaders and frightened, ignorant masses

A free, open, and intelligent atmosphere of a true university, for Jefferson, produced the liveliest, happiest, and most rewarding society. At William and Mary College, which Jefferson attended in the mid-1700s, and when being tutored thereafter in law by George Wythe, he enjoyed an educational community that informed his ideals for the University of Virginia’s ‘Academical Village.’

Jefferson recognized that individual intellectual growth and development require many informal unofficial societies and relationships in the university “grounds” besides formal classrooms, laboratories, and libraries—hence his notion of an ‘Academical Village.’ The common areas of The Lawn, benches, the lake, dining clubs, and friendships are all an integral part of the academic community. Restrictive control over informal settings and relationships stifle learning. Jefferson experienced this positive aspect of college life and attributed much of his learning and accomplishments to it. Such casual, personal social life is one of the most important and pleasant aspects of university life. The radically expanded and rigid Title IX enforcement of these past years in American higher education damages this vital aspect of collegiate life almost as much as its destruction of free speech.

But Jefferson enjoyed both a stimulating, wide-ranging intellectual life and a fulfilling informal social life at William and Mary College – both affecting positively his future life and career.

In his Autobiography, Jefferson wrote of the influence of William Small on his life. ‘It was my good fortune, and what probably fixed the destinies of my life, that Dr. William Small of Scotland was then the professor of Mathematics, a man profound in most of the useful branches of science, with a happy talent for communication, correct and gentlemanly manners, and an enlarged and liberal mind.’[6] From this gifted professor, Jefferson first experienced the intellectual excitement and joy of lively learning and discussion. Small was not merely an instructor, but also a mentor and friend. Jefferson wrote that Professor Small was his ‘daily companion,’ and their ‘conversation’ covered the whole range of knowledge: science, philosophy, ethics, rhetoric and ‘belles letters’ (literature). This also led to Jefferson’s introduction to his law professor, George Wythe, who similarly taught legal practice and doctrine within a framework of a liberal education: history, literature, and political philosophy.[7] This way of studying English Common Law greatly affected the arguments and history that informed Jefferson’s writings during the American Revolution and in early American Republic.

Besides this formal education, professors Small and Wythe also introduced Jefferson to the British Royal Governor Francis Fauquier, and Small and Wythe, the four formed a ‘partie quarree: at dinner parties at the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg.’ The lively dinner conversations at these social occasions further taught Jefferson the arts of bonhomie and intelligent and pleasant conversation on a whole range of subjects with friends and colleagues. Fauquier was described as ‘elegant, urbane, learned and witty.’ He patronized the arts and music, classical concerts, and discussions of French philosophy and literature, and had gentlemanly ‘taste, refinement and erudition.’[8] Thus, Jefferson described his dinner engagements in Williamsburg as ‘the finest school of manners and morals that ever existed in America.’[9] This model of a civilized, lively academic environment birthed Jefferson’s idea of the University of Virginia—’this institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind [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’—which he founded 40 years later. This ethic of free inquiry into all manner of ideas, and of examining all perspectives without fear of offense, became the American ideal of ‘academic freedom’ and of intellectual progress in the United States and in the world, as well as the social mileau of the academy.

So, university education for Jefferson entailed formal and rigorous, yet free and open inquiry, and discussion and debates of all sides of issues in the classroom as well as lectures, seminars, and labs, and the informal unstructured social life of his ‘Academical Village.’ There was to be talk, argument, and laughter at meals, on walks, in dorms, on benches, on The Lawn, at theatrical and musical performances, and even before or after chapel. Much of the intellectual and social development was to occur in this community, as it did for Jefferson in Williamsburg.

The benefits of this casual, friendly academic society are equally as important as all the class work, studies, paper, assignments, and presentations. Together, the formal, technical, and informal personal aspects of the University of Virginia would develop the mind, manner, and character of its students and prepared them for life, professional and personal. This strictly academic and indirectly academic atmosphere would provide mentoring and ‘apprenticeships’ that went beyond purely academic learning.

As Jefferson gratefully acknowledged, this combination of the formal and informal atmosphere in his college life prepared him for his extraordinary life achievements. That remains the implicit ethos and goal of American higher education.

Unfortunately, throughout American history and especially in recent years, the rigorous, open, and free academic atmosphere, and the informal social community of the university have been greatly damaged by certain intrusive governmental policies.

Title IX and the End of Academic Freedom

The Jeffersonian ideal of academic freedom as open, diverse, and rational discussion in a lively, tolerant academic community has been largely destroyed in the past three years by the federal government’s (Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights of the Obama Administration) expansion of the Title IX law. This radical, and largely illegal and unconstitutional, expansion of a law designed to maintain gender equality in college sports programs, imposes policies that censor free speech and poisoned the open, positive academic relationships in the academic community. This was done in the name of stopping assault, harassment, and abuse, particularly of women, but it has ended up harming women the most and creating a ‘hostile environment’ for everyone. Fortunately, the Federal Courts reversed dozens of unjust decisions rendered by Title IX officials by tribunals that decided basic due process of law protections. The current administration is undoing much of this bureaucratic overreach. But the damage has been done to American higher education and may take years to repair.

Many books and articles have now been written on this Title IX debacle and its disastrous effects on American Higher Education, but perhaps the best is Laura Kipnis’s recent book Unwanted Advances. As professor of theater and film at Northwestern University, she has personally experienced a Title IX ‘Inquisition’ and has heard from hundreds of faculty who underwent similar horrors. Professor Kipnis brings social, psychological, cultural, and dramatic insight into the effects of this perversion of a legitimate law. The effect of this ‘politically correct’ Title IX expansion on academic freedom is also well documented in Robert Shibley’s book Twisting Title IX, summarizing his Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s (FIRE) which champions advocacy of freedom of speech. He points out that the gender discrimination prohibited by Title IX is deftly extended to include sexual harassment and ‘misconduct,’ including ‘verbal and nonverbal,’ which anyone does not like or by which anyone is offended. So, any remark, gesture, joke, facial expression, appearance, or opinion that upsets anyone (especially in ‘protected’ groups) can violate the University Title IX policy.[10] An “offender” is then investigated, interrogated (without the benefits of the due process of law normally afforded the accused), and judged (expelled, reprimanded, fired, etc.) by a single Title IX ofiRcial beholden to a Washington agency with power over the university, the Constitution, the federal judiciary, and Congress. Well, the Federal Courts did not agree with that for very long.

Besides the destruction of freedom of speech, necessary to a healthy university education, this Title IX policy and its procedures create an atmosphere of suspicion, fear, and persecution, inimical to an open, free, and happy academic community. The offended are encouraged by university Title IX offices, with Orwellian names like The Office of Conduct and Compliance, to report any infraction of these totalitarian codes, against themselves or others, to launch an inquisition and seek persecution and punishment. Spying, surveillance, and reporting any possibly infringement (on- or off-campus, anytime of the year, for perpetuity) create a police-state environment not seen since the Nazi Gestapo of Germany in the 1930s. Obviously this creates a ‘hostile environment’ for everyone by turning lively, exciting, challenging, and pleasant universities into cold, hostile, and fearful graveyards.

Rolling Stone Magazine Article and UVa

Sadly, one of the most notorious Title IX tragedies occurred at Mr. Jefferson’s citadel of academic freedom: The University of Virginia. The infamous ‘Rolling Stone Magazine Episode’ showed the extent of the destruction of these policies to reason, intellectual activity, and healthy academic communities.

By the fall of 2014, the government’s expansion and publicity of Title IX led a majority of Americans to believe that universities were centers of massive violence and oppression— that many people at U.S. institutions of higher education were continually being assaulted, abused, and harassed. This crisis justified the draconian policies that policed ‘conduct’ of faculty, staff, and students. The problem was particularly framed in terms of white men assaulting, abusing and harassing minorities and women.

In this atmosphere, the most publicized atrocity of the kind was reported by Rolling Stone Magazine. In November of 2014, this magazine’s cover story was of a horrific rape at The University of Virginia, in a fraternity house. National media attention and outrage in Charlottesville followed. The incident seemed to confirm all the Title IX advocates asserted about the ‘culture of rape’ at American universities—their ‘toxic masculinity’ and fraternity brutality. The UVa Administration temporarily suspended all fraternities and sororities. The accused fraternity house was vandalized-windows were broken by bricks and bottles thrown by protestors, and fraternity members were attaclced on campus and in social media. But, as the facts in this case were investigated by law enforcement officials and other journalists, it was found to be entirely fabricated by the false accuser. But the story and the institutional response greatly damaged the University of Virginia’s reputation: applications were down, as were benefactions and rankings.

The UVa Board of Visitors subsequently hired an international team of law firms to investigate how the Administration had handled this crisis.

In April of 2017, Rolling Stone Magazine settled a three-million-dollar lawsuit against a dean, defamed in the article, and in June, 2017, 1.65-million-dollar lawsuit was settled with the libeled fraternity.

In July, 2017, UVa implemented a revised Title IX policy that restored many constitutional protections to freedom of speech and due process of law.

Also, in its 2017 term, the United States Supreme Court ruled in a First Amendment’s freedom-of-speech case (Matal v. Tam) that the government cannot restrict speech on the basis of it offending an individual’s or a group’s ‘identity.’ In a unanimous decision by the Court, it stated, ‘Speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend.’ This ruling should end the ‘politically correct’ speech codes, restrictions (‘verbal harassment’), and policies of Title IX, damaging academic freedom.

Even the new administration in Washington seems to be revising the recent Title IX policy expansion. Secretary of Education, De Vos, said of it: ‘There are some things that are working. There are many things that are not working well.’[11] On September 22, 2017, the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights rescinded the 2011 and 2014 expansions of Title IX.

But in November, 2016, a group of UVA faculty and students petitioned the President of the University to stop quoting Jefferson because he owned slaves and was a racist. Mr. Jefferson’s ideal of rational, free speech in the academy had reached a new low.

In November, 2015, the Faculty Senate of The University of Virginia’s College at Wise unanimously adopted a Resolution on Academic Freedom, which I crafted. There is an addendum, ‘Reasons for Academic Freedom,’ which details the philosophical, historical, and social benefits of Jeffersonian academia—a subject of national publicity which affects other universities—for a thriving educational experience.[12] The Jeffersonian liberal values of justice, freedom, moral sensitivity, and worthwhile industry must prevail at all colleges and universities. With his usual optimism, Jefferson believed that as long as humans have reason and a social nature, the intellectual life of the university will prevail.

[1] See Garrett Ward Sheldon “The Myth of Jefferson’s Polysemous Conception of Liberty,” in Thomas Jefferson: The Man behind the Myths, ed. M. Andrew Holowchak (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2017).

[2] Plato, Apology, trans. G.M.A. Grube (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, I98I), 38a.

[3] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1097bI2 and 1169bl9, and Politics, 1253a3-4 and 1278b20.

[4] Thomas Jefferson, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, vol 8, ed. Albert Ellery Bergh (Washington, D.C.: Thomas Jefferson’s Memorial Association, 1904-5), 455.

[5] In Apology, Socrates admits to a sort of “human wisdom,” which is recognition and admission of the “worthless” of human wisdom, next to divine wisdom, 23a-b

[6] Thomas Jefferson, Autobiography, Thomas Jefferson: Writings, ed. Merrill D. Peterson (New York: Library of America, 1984), 4.

[7] Thomas Jefferson, Autobiography, 4-5.

[8] Merrell Peterson, Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), 14-15.

[9] Thomas Jefferson, Autobiography, 4.

[10] Robert L. Shibley, Twisting Title IX (New York: Encounter Books, 2016) 24-25. A group of Harvard Law School faculty immediately saw the ramifications of this expansion in 2014 and wrote an open letter, published in The Boston Globe famously saying it is ‘inconsistent with many of the most basic principles we teach.

[11] Inside Higher Ed, July 14, 2017,

[12] ‘Virginia Professors Adopt Statement Championing Academic Freedom, Free Speech,’ The College Fix (site) January 5, 2016.