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For the past decade I have been nursing a steady but intensifying obsession with The Thomas Jefferson Hour. The Thomas Jefferson Hour is radio at its absolute best. Writer, scholar, and to my way of thinking, genius and national treasure, Clay Jenkinson, plays the part of Thomas Jefferson. For an hour each week he and a host field questions from listeners relating to all things Jeffersonian.
I have attended Mr. Jenkinson’s live performance three times—twice when taking on the persona of Jefferson and once as Theodore Roosevelt—and every time I leave the performance with a heightened pulse of patriotic fervor. I have taught AP American Government to high school seniors for over a decade and political science courses to college students for eight years. Every student I have ever taught has heard me rave about the genius and insight of The Thomas Jefferson Hour. Indeed, if I am being honest, much of what they learn has been taught to me through the personage of Jenkinson’s Jefferson.
Until recently, I have kept my Jefferson-mania to myself—after all, Jefferson is not as vogue as he once was. The sensibilities of the modern academy and national punditry seem conducive to raised eyebrows and snark towards those of us unabashedly hailing the greatness of Jefferson.
Yes, the same Jefferson who wrote the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia Statute for Religion Freedom, and founded the University of Virginia is the man who owned slaves and, by some accounts, treated them harshly, the man who had no sense of gender equality, the man who exalted George Washington as the greatest man of the millennium in one moment and deliberately questioned his acumen in the next. Indeed, the day Jefferson came to pay his respects to Martha Washington before assuming the Presidency was labeled by her as “the second worst day of my life.” Martha Washington minces no words when she described Jefferson as “one of the most detestable of mankind.”
And yet, I am now ready to publically declare that everyone—especially American educators—should share in my obsession with The Thomas Jefferson Hour.
Why the change of heart?
The founder of the Jefferson Hour, Clay Jenkinson, has recently proclaimed that he has fallen in love with Jefferson all over again and has decided to redouble his efforts towards making the show grow from a being a “subculture to a phenomenon.”
Mr. Jenkinson is convinced that “Thomas Jefferson is the answer” for what ails and ensnares modern America. While there is certainly a “lower Jefferson” that is the fodder of naysayers and skeptics, the higher Jefferson is a “lens and a vehicle for the world” we want to live in. This higher Jefferson is the source of a national reinvigoration that needs to arise—a reinvigoration that understands government is important but can never achieve for its citizens, a reinvigoration that is skeptical of American military involvement, a reinvigoration that believes in the fecundity of science, a reinvigoration that softens the harshness of industrialized society with an agrarian disposition for reflective individualism. As Jenkinson explained on a recent episode, Jefferson gave “language to the human aspiration for freedom.”
We teachers should all stoke the embers of a Jeffersonian fire for a simple reason: every child can sing the magical melody of America. As the most optimistic and sanguine of the founding generation, Jefferson believed if human beings were emancipated from a life of monarchical preordination, then the natural capacities of each citizen could be nurtured into a life of genuine achievement. Through extraordinary exertion and discipline, Jefferson read twelve to fifteen hours a day as a young man and well-understood that a substantive education can elicit a metamorphosis of the mind.
What Jefferson recognized is without broad education and a general diffusion of knowledge, democracy will collapse upon itself, freedom will degenerate into meaningless license masking as liberty, and the Enlightenment’s great hope of social progress will become a dream devoid of realization.
America can work. Individual dreams can be achieved. Liberty can be enlivened and freedom can flourish; but only if the American classroom succeeds in instilling the habits of the mind that lead to the attainment of democratic self-government. Those habits—a belief in critical thinking, self-reliance, and the responsibilities of substantive citizenship—do not begin with our leaders. They begin with teachers and the duty to educate not only our children, but to continually learn, discuss, and grow throughout our own lives.
And while Mr. Jefferson might hang his head in disappointment when witnessing the perennial power of Wall Street, the size and scope of our military, and the winnowing of the agrarian world-view, he would certainly recognize that the essential creed of America lives on in the classroom. He would sense it whenever a child dreams big and reaches high. But those dreams require that we walk through the door of education and no one can open the door wider than quality teachers and inspired educators.