Wednesday, August 19, 2020
August 19, 2020: Virginia Histories: Mr. Jefferson’s University
[As with everything else in this plague-ridden year, my sons and my annual summer trip to Charlottesville unfortunately hasn’t been able to happen as planned. But this blog will always return to my home state, this time for a series on a few of Virginia’s pivotal historical moments!]
On the instructive early struggles of an educational pioneer.
I’ve been pretty hard in this space on Cville’s favorite son and the namesake of my childhood street (among 2,832 other things in town), Thomas Jefferson, and I stand by those analytical critiques. But TJ also did a lot of great things in his long and influential life, and I agree with his tombstone’s argument that the founding of the University of Virginia was among his most impressive achievements. While the oft-shared narrative that UVa was the nation’s first state or public university is an inaccurate one, it was something even more significant: America’s first non-sectarian university, one created and designed with no denominational affiliation or sponsorship. Whether that made it entirely secular is a matter for debate, but absent such affiliation (and with, for example, no requirement for chapel attendance for its students), the university represented a significant shift in American higher education in any case.
As is often the case when such norms are challenged, Jefferson’s university faced pushback and critique from religious leaders and other adversaries (such as its in-state rival and Jefferson’s alma mater, the overtly Anglican William and Mary College) in its early years. But as journalists Rex Bowman and Carlos Santos document in their book Rot, Riot, and Rebellion: Mr. Jefferson’s Struggle to Save the University That Changed America (2013), the far more extreme early struggles were those presented by the students themselves, a group of (mostly) spoiled plantation aristocrats who spent more time partying and dueling than studying, who (as that linked review quotes) “randomly [shot] as passersby” and “whip[ped] professors,” and a masked one of whom even murdered the popular law professor John A.G. Davis in 1840. Jefferson did (spoiler alert!) help the university change course, as did others including some of the students (who designed the famous Honor Code after the Davis killing), but in its early years UVa was seemingly as far from Jefferson’s ideal “academical village” as it could be.
Fun stories to be sure (although slightly chilling ones for any professor to read!), but do they have a broader significance, beyond simply (if importantly) revising our perspective on this one university? I would argue that they do, on at least two levels. For one thing, anyone who finds him or herself critiquing 21st century college students for their excessive partying or lack of focus on their studies or the like should probably stop and realize a) college students have always been thus and b) things were far worse in certain places and moments than they are now! And for another, it’s worth considering one reason why UVa students could and did get away with these crazy and violent behaviors for so long with few if any reprisals: their privileged status, class, gender, and race. Mike Brown, the African American teenager famously killed by a police offer in Ferguson, Missouri, in the summer of 2014, was about to start his college career as well—and whatever Brown did or did not do on the day of his death, it’s fair to say that it wasn’t nearly as bad as much of what went on in the early days of Mr. Jefferson’s University.
Next VA history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Virginia histories or contexts you’d share?