Education Has Increasingly Shackled Reason

COMMENTARY: The mind possesses an “illimitable freedom.” The recognition of this factor is a good starting place for education.

Carr's Hill (the house of the university president) behind the statue of Thomas Jefferson at the University of Virginia.
Carr's Hill (the house of the university president) behind the statue of Thomas Jefferson at the University of Virginia. (photo: CC BY-SA 2.0)

Thomas Jefferson was a man of many talents and a comparable number of accomplishments. He was a statesman, diplomat, lawyer, architect, philosopher, musician, Founding Father, principal author of the Declaration of Independence and America’s third president. 

In 1819, at the age of 76, he founded the University of Virginia. He was the principal designer of the buildings, planned the university’s curriculum, and served as the school’s first rector (what today we would call a college president). The epitaph he wrote indicates the pride he felt as the university’s founder. It makes no reference to his being the president of the United States: 


Jefferson’s belief in the liberating power of education is something that we are presently in serious need of restoring. In reference to the University of Virginia, he wrote, “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 error so long as reason is left to combat it.”

These few words highlight the fundamental significance of three factors: freedom, truth and reason. The mind possesses an “illimitable freedom.” The recognition of this factor is a good starting place for education. This spacious freedom, however, must be directed so that it does not remain wide open and of no particular use for students or anyone else. Truth, then, is needed to ensure that freedom is directed to reality. Education must be realistic enough to serve the needs of human beings. Naturally, there will be errors, misjudgements, prejudices and so on. But reason is there to distinguish truth from error. And as long as reason is fully operative, no one need fear any deviations from truth that may arise.

If education is to flourish, this triad of freedom, truth and reason must not be broken. Jefferson has provided posterity with a sound approach to education for which we should be grateful. Nonetheless, when we survey the educational landscape today we find that reason has been put in shackles which makes it impossible to distinguish truth from error and gives freedom a free hand. The mind is thereby closed to truth and those in power are free to impose irrational ideologies on unwitting subjects.

Education has drifted far beyond what Jefferson had in mind. In Ontario, Canada, board members of Catholic schools are abandoning ship because they see the gradual adoption of the “woke” ideology along with a growing hostility (some might even say racism) against white males. Catholic bishops are unable to prevent Catholic schools from flying the rainbow flag. Critical race theory is replacing common sense. Parents are being excluded as ideological irrationality takes over. Abigail Shrier’s newly published book, Irreversible Damage, cites a fifth-grade teacher’s attitude toward parents who object to transgender ideology: “That’s nice, but their parental rights ended when those children were enrolled in public school.” The world of education is becoming more and more a kind of alternate reality against which reason is no longer effective.

Those courageous souls who defend reason against the rising tide of ideological power risk losing their jobs. They are routinely labelled as homophobic or transphobic. A reasonable judgment is taken to be a sign of mental illness. The Matić Report, presented to the European Parliament on June 7, defined abortion as a “human right.” It claimed that all pro-life laws in Europe are tantamount to “a form of gender-based violence.” Since abortion is presumably a “human right,” the report calls for the abolition of all conscientious objection to it by medical practitioners.

Reason is muted by the deafening demands for false “freedoms” — reproductive, sexual or otherwise — therefore rendering reason impotent to testify on behalf of the unborn. It is unable to declare that the violence in abortion is not against the mother, but against the unborn child. Nor is it able to state that roughly half of abortions are committed against females.

In the absence of reason, a war has been declared, but only by one side. The victims are often paralyzed by fear. Yet there are the outspoken individuals who dare to speak the truth and place things in an irresistibly clear perspective. One such hero is John Leo, a writer, editor and senior member of the Manhattan Institute. In sparkling prose, he has this to say concerning the troubling situation at hand: “Like the guerrillas moving down from the hills to attack cities, the race-and-gender people are no longer just sniping from marginal positions on campus and in the art world. With the aid of an ever-credulous press corps, they are now pumping their doctrine into the general culture . . . America will increasingly be divided by a truculent tribalism, with nonwhites and white women ganging up in a grand alliance to wrest power from white males.”

Thomas Jefferson had a complex relationship with his fellow Founding Father and predecessor in the new nation’s highest office, John Adams — they were alternately mortal enemies and intimate friends. They both passed away on the same day, July 4, 1826. According to his attending physician, Jefferson’s last words, uttered on July 3, were “Is it the Fourth?” 

The physician’s response was, “It soon will be.” John Adams’ last words were “Thomas Jefferson still survives.” He was mistaken. Jefferson had passed away five hours earlier at Monticello. July 4, 1826 was the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. At that time, John Quincy Adams, John Adams’ son, was the sitting president. Was all this a coincidence? In a eulogy delivered the following month, Daniel Webster wondered what this “striking and extraordinary” coincidence might suggest. He surmised that the greatness of these former presidents and their deaths on the same day were “proofs that our country and its benefactors are objects of His care.”

Whatever one may think, we may observe the coming Fourth of July mindful of the great contributions that Jefferson and Adams made to America and how this country has wandered from its glorious beginnings.