Historical Society speaker discusses higher education through the mind of Jefferson

Turns out our third president had more than one revolutionary idea in mind

· Oct 15, 2018 Tweet

Haley Winckler/The Badger Herald

The Wisconsin Historical Society welcomed Andrew J. O’Shaughnessy to present for the very first time “The Illimitable Freedom of the Human Mind: Thomas Jefferson’s Idea of a University” on Oct. 10. O’Shaughnessy has an Oxford education and is currently a professor of history at the University of Virginia.

At the start of the lecture, it became clear that O’Shaughnessy likely knows more about Thomas Jefferson than Thomas Jefferson did. The speech was peppered with specific but pertinent anecdotes about Jefferson and his quirks.

Early on, O’Shaughnessy points out that Jefferson’s gravestone lists a handful of his accomplishments “Father Of The University Of Virginia” being one of them — while his tenure as president is nowhere to be seen.

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This seemed to be a case of skewed priorities, but over the course of the lecture, it became clear that this is actually a reflection of Jefferson’s rabid devotion to higher education.

For those who were not in attendance — the main takeaway of the lecture was the notion of freedom as it relates to college. While O’Shaughnessy did admit toward the start of the lecture that in some ways “the ideal and reality did not entirely match,” he still made it clear to the audience that Jefferson’s ideas shaped the university landscape into what America is familiar with today.

Consistent motifs throughout the talk were the novel concepts Jefferson came up with for the University of Virginia. Though it would be more accurate to call them “novel for the time” since a lot of these innovations are things we take for granted nowadays.

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Dr. O’Shaughnessy made note of how the university allowed students to “cherry pick” courses suited to their interests, which was a far cry from the rigid coursework of the time. He also described the university’s initial blueprint as being “the size of a town” — one can’t help but draw comparisons to our own campus that eats up a sizable portion of the downtown area.

These are a few of the many parallels to be drawn between Jefferson’s dream campus and our own. It’s fair to say that if Jefferson were still around, he would more than approve of the University of Wisconsin.

Not all the Wisconsin Historical Society events are overtly historical. “The Flavor of Wisconsin” exhibition is being held from now until Nov. 10 at the Wisconsin Historical Museum. More information about this and other events can be found on their official website.


This article was published Oct 15, 2018 at 7:45 pm and last updated Oct 15, 2018 at 8:13 pm


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