The Future Guardians
February 8, 2016
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 a church, or of any one political class. It would instead serve to empower the ideals of democracy, justice, and citizenship. That is why Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia— envisioned as a kind of “insurance policy” for the American Revolution.
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.”
The Center for Media and Citizenship at the University of Virginia is guided by this founding vision: to create citizen leaders who will be the “future guardians of the rights and liberties of their country.”
(the image is Thomas Jefferson’s sketch of the Rotunda of the University of Virginia, which he shared publicly for the first time at a meeting of the Board of Visitors on March 29, 1819. The Rotunda was complete by 1826, and served as the University’s central Library until the late 1930s).