In the summer of 1820, as construction of the magnificent buildings in his planned Academical Village moved forward, Thomas Jefferson wrote that the University would be “an establishment which I contemplate as the future bulwark of the human mind in this hemisphere.” A bulwark is a defensive wall, a structure for protection and support. That metaphor captures Jefferson’s understanding of the University’s leadership role in American civic life . Those who teach, study, and work at the University of Virginia would participate in a unique and historic mission. A university, he once wrote, should be an “incubator where the future guardians of the rights and liberties of their country may be endowed with science and virtue, to watch and preserve the sacred deposit.”
For Jefferson, the University of Virginia was never to be an end in itself, but would always be a kind of tool, a mechanism, by which the ideals of democratic, civic life could be preserved and strengthened. He envisioned a university that did not serve the interests of a king, of any church, or of any one political class. It would instead serve to empower the ideals of democracy, justice, and citizenship. As media scholar Neil Postman has eloquently observed, “Thomas Jefferson. . . knew what schools were for — to ensure that citizens would know when and how to protect their liberty. . . It would not have come easily to the mind of such a man, as it does to political leaders today, that the young should be taught to read exclusively for the purpose of increasing their economic productivity.”
To create citizen leaders capable of critical thinking who will contribute to humanity’s potential and push back against any force in society that threatens the principles of democracy, civic life, and human liberty: that is the historic mission of the University of Virginia. And no one perhaps understood more palpably the threat those forces posed than the founder himself: a man who participated in perpetuating human slavery in his own home. Indeed, the very construction of his Academical Village was made possible through the use of enslaved labor. The work of the Center for Media and Citizenship is grounded in a vision that the University of Virginia has an obligation, not only to this nation but to the world: to discover, to learn, to teach, and to inspire all those who would nurture and strengthen the ideals of democracy, citizenship, and justice.
Freedom of the press, of speech, and the work of responsible journalists, scholars and engaged citizens cannot be understated when we consider the success of a self-governing people. “If it were left to me,” Jefferson mused in 1787, “to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.” It was not only a press free to investigate and criticize the government that was necessary— willing, as we might say today, to “speak truth to power” — but a literate, educated citizenry was a crucial part of the formula: citizens who had full access to the information, the news, and the views that would inform their self governance. In 1823, as the University prepared to open to students for the first time, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The only security of all is in a free press.” Understanding the power and the responsibilities of journalism and of the media in a constitutional democracy is therefore a critical component in our study of citizenship.
At the University of Virginia’s Center for Media and Citizenship, we take seriously the very real threats to self governance, and to human and civil rights. We believe that a deeper appreciation and understanding of the relationships between the media, journalism, democracy, and citizenship will provide much-needed insight and perspective. Our offices and media lab are located in Wilson Hall on the historic Grounds of the Academical Village at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. We invite you to follow the links below for more information about the Center, to sign up for our newsletter, to join us at our upcoming public events, and please consider supporting this important work with your donation. Thank you.
Contribute to the Center
The Center for Media and Citizenship depends on gifts and donations to support our work. We invite you to join our mission and help make this work possible. Any measure of support is deeply appreciated, and 100% of your gift will go to support our programs and projects— all of which enrich the student experience at the University of Virginia in new and exciting ways. Click the button below to give now through a secure online portal at the University of Virginia.