Aristotle believed, “There is no safer index to a disciple’s powers of assimilation, and at the same time to the strength and sureness of his creative instinct, than his relation to a great master to whom he dedicates his youthful affections” (Jaeger 11). What was meant by this? Aristotle was talking about the Platonic philosophy of education and the learning process that followed. Plato didn’t believe in a learning that was kept away from public view, nor did he propose concrete answers to the minds of his students. He instead posed questions – the catalyst for democratic thought. Here the students themselves took part in the effort to examine the logical validity of Plato’s ideas, constantly reinterpreting and reevaluating what was said. According to Plato the route to truth was in the journey of learning and questioning rather than what was discovered in the end. This became the distinction of the Greek Academy, and Thomas Jefferson understood and admired Platonic educational philosophy. He thought it to be much more productive in the minds of the youth than traditional learning in which students committed known facts to memory . “In promoting man’s right to the widest possible dissemination of knowledge, Jefferson based his concept for the University of Virginia on the ancient Greek practice of gathering students together in the open landscape” (Hogan 28). The idea was to empower chance encounters to create cross pollination of ideas. Commissioning the Greek tradition, he set the stage for a familial relationship between the students and their professors (Turner 80). “He placed professors to live among the students. Adding a reliance on student self-government, he hoped to create a climate for the individual’s right to the pursuit of happiness” (Hogan 28).
According to University of Virginia English professor Mark Edmundson, The Lawn is our version of the Agora (left: Stoa of Attalus, Athens). It is the “marketplace where the preeminent teacher of classical antiquity roved freely questioning those who would give him a moment, discomfiting the well established, and creating a band of wisdom lovers like himself who knew (at least at the start of their quest) that they knew nothing.” Jefferson realized that Socratic conversation was bound to occur in The Lawn where students and teachers alike lived in tandem. The teacher can “take up a position,” he says, and “stand and offer a truth, submitting it to the curiosity and to the critical scrutiny of the students.” Aristotle believed that good can not be born of a man who does not deliberate as to the answer. It must be an intellectual process. “The speculative life is the highest life of man,” according to Aristotle (Burnett 7). A self-directed life of observation was the ancient Greek way of examining the known world, and at times a sort of omniscient way of observing.
When Thomas Jefferson designed the curriculum for his new University of Virginia, he had in mind that of a true liberal education that did not exist at the time in America. He wanted “all branches of human knowledge taught in the highest degree to which the human mind had carried them. Instead of a fixed curriculum, he set up an elective system that permitted each student to choose his own subjects” (Hogan 39). Here the students were able to design a path of education suited to their particular natural desires and aspirations. This was a kind of living curriculum. Learning took the form of an open conversation among scholars and teachers, instead of one person lecturing to a group of note takers for memorization. Such a radical process was this that Jefferson had a tough time attracting American professors willing to practice it. It surely threatened to upend the prevailing hierarchy of education. Two-thirds of the professors came from Europe to teach at the new University of Virginia, and not only would the educational process itself have its roots in Greek philosophy, but also would the design of the University of Virginia Grounds itself. Aristotle thought education should have its purpose to prepare youth to “become members of a community” (Burnett 131). If a good and lasting community is an embodiment of the collective intellect and education of the individuals that make up that place, then the focus of an education essentially must refer to some larger whole outside the university (131). This was the Greek view of the purpose of an education. It was to make great cities in a reflection of the highest culture of learning.
Jefferson’s challenge was to emulate this idea of community in his design. It was achieved by the conception of an “academical village” where the term village was meant literally. Many early American colleges were housed in one very large building, but Jefferson rejected that model. Despite its grandeur, Jefferson didn’t want to overwhelm people with the buildings and siting. Human scale and proportion was an important determinant of form. The Greeks were experts in the sizing of buildings to coincide with their democratic ideals. It was the Greeks who developed the understanding of perspective through the use of mathematics and geometry, and understood how the human eye perceived a third dimension in space. Greek buildings did not dominate the landscape, but settled into the landscape, using the topography as an organizing framework of equal importance. It is the way some of the world’s great cities were laid out – not as a man made imposition, but as an amplification of the inherent qualities of a place that drew people to settle there to begin with. Jefferson’s Lawn was laid upon a natural ridgeline in the Virginia Piedmont – part of a farm owned by James Monroe. (That ridge today once you leave the Grounds of the University becomes what we know as Rugby Road heading North.) Jefferson’s village ran north to south with detailed, but relatively diminutive pavilions – themselves educational models of architecture – in two rows of five stepping along graded terraced lawns flanked by rows of student dwellings. It had the feel and spatial qualities of the ancient Athenian Agora – a marketplace of democracy – with its colonnade rows of buildings in varying styles. The Lawn and its complex of buildings were designed to set up a duality between the human mind and the world itself. The Rotunda at the north end was a counterpoint to the open south end. It was conceived as the mind-center of the university – its library. Just as the south end was open to the infinite possibility of the landscape beyond, the Rotunda was filled with books which contained within them the “powers of transport, transformation, and enlightenment” (Edmundson 36).
Thomas Jefferson gave birth to a new nation, and then inspired by the ancient Greek model of teaching, he implemented an entirely modern educational system in a young America that is our University of Virginia.– Josh McCullar, Richmond, Virginia