Blame Thomas Jefferson: Anti-Intellectualism and Vocationalism in American Higher Education
Free Public Lecture
Kwong Lee Dow Building
234 Queensberry Street
See more events from
Thomas Jefferson was well-known for his support for education as the founder of the University of Virginia in 1819. He had a crucial role in defining the US Constitution; however, he and the other founding fathers were silent on matters regarding education in this most important document. The 10th Amendment decrees that 'powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution…are reserved to the States respectively', a provision that has left the issue of education entirely up to 50 separate entities. Although the 14th Amendment has been interpreted to guarantee access to K-12 education to all people, it provides no guidance as to the quality or contents of education.
The structure of the federal government has a direct impact on the role of higher education. Since the founding of Harvard College in 1636, despite the illuminating ideas of John Henry Newman and John Dewey, Americans have struggled with the purpose of higher education. The lack of a coordinated national role in K-12 education has produced significant disparities, known as 'achievement gaps', among college-age young adults along the racial and socio-economic lines of the American society, where the white students have far better proficiency scores and an alarming percentage of minority students perform under the proficiency scores.
Rising college costs have led many minority students to choose lower-ranked regional institutions or community colleges. The national research universities, on the other hand, have risen to be global players, attracting talented faculty and students from across the world, and they are being blamed for not serving local economic development.
The challenges facing accessibility and affordability, exacerbated by the divisive political debates on the value of higher education, have caused many Americans to ask: 'Is college for everyone?' This seminar asks: Is today’s American higher education structure shaped by the US constitution? If so, why has the lack of federal and state coordination of higher education become the obstacle for a coherent national model for post-secondary education, by pitting knowledge and critical thinking development against career development?