Approaches to Homeschool: Thomas Jefferson Education

Dear Reader,

This is part of my continuing series on the philosophies behind different homeschooling methods (See the introduction, unit studies, unschooling, classical, and Charlotte Mason entries). I am starting to get further and further from my area of knowledge so feel free to jump in if you know more than I do. This post, even more so than most, is me thinking out loud and my thoughts are still in process.

The four questions I am asking of the different methodologies are:

1. What do they assume about how learning works?

2. How do they view children?

3. How do they view human nature?

4. What do they believe is the goal of education?

This week I am up to Thomas Jefferson Education. I had heard of this approach but didn’t know much about it till I started reading it in preparation for this post. And I will admit, all of what I have read is online. No library in our system has any of the books on TJEd (as it is known) that I could find.

TJEd is a relatively recent method (begun in the 1990s it appears), founded by Oliver and Rachel DeMille. It is based on how they believe Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers of our country were educated. Mr. Jefferson’s (I am from Charlottesville, VA, home of Mr. Jefferson, and that is what we call him there) teacher was George Wythe, and they have begun a university named after him which follows the TJEd style of education.

TJEd is based upon what they call the 7 keys of great teaching and the phases of learning. The phases are developmental phases which reminds me of the classical style of Dorothy Sayers and The Well-Trained Mind. Not that they are the same stages as in modern classical education, but the fact of there being different stages calls up classical ed in the mind. I have found the stages divided and called slightly different things but here are the basics: the core stage (birth-age 8), the love of learning stage (ages 8-12), the scholar phase (ages 12-16), and the depth phase (ages 16-22) [See Off the Conveyor Belt on the 4 Phases of Learning]. There are also additional phases which one goes through as an adult so that it seems there are sometimes four and sometimes more phases. As an adult, one goes through the mission and impact stage and the statesmanship phase.

The seven keys are presented as contrasts. They are: classics, not textbooks; mentors, not professors; inspire, not require; structure time, not content; quality, not conformity; simplicity, not complexity; and you, not them (see this article from “Off the Conveyor Belt” for more detail). TJEd shares an emphasis on classic living books with the Charlotte Mason method and the last stage of modern classical education (see my post on great books here). It spurns large classes and disinterested, lecturing teachers in favor of involved mentors who can cater to the individual student’s interests and needs. However, the role of the educator is much larger and more important than in Charlotte Mason’s approach. The quality of the mentor plays a large part in how well the student is educated. A love for learning is at least an intermediate goal in TJEd. The student is expected to enjoy their studies and to follow their interests. Individuality is emphasized. There is no one set curriculum, and busy work is shunned.

So we may begin to answer our questions. The first was: how does learning work? TJEd would say that learning happens when the student is inspired, when they study because they want to, not because they are forced too. Force produces followers, not leaders. A key principle here is that greatness inspires greatness. So  good books which contain real ideas are used rather than textbooks. The role of the mentor to inspire and guide the student is also central. In the early years especially, this role can be filled by the parent, but my understanding is that as the child grows, a more trained, specialized mentor would be needed. The student cannot rise much above the level of the mentor so it is important that the mentor also continue to study and learn (this is what the last key “you, not them” is about).

I am going to turn to the third question next: how do they view human nature? TJEd has a very high view of the value of the individual. Each one is a genius whose inner potential only needs to be unlocked and fostered. TJEd is leadership education, that it is designed to train leaders. One wonders how many leaders a society can have. But I suppose there are different areas in which to lead, and, as I said, it does say that there is greatness in each of us.

Which brings me back to the second question about the view of children specifically. Children are people (seems obvious I know) so they too have this inner genius to be fostered. TJEd does, however, share with modern classical methods a phased approach. This means that a young child is not yet ready for all learning. It is not as clear to me in TJEd what it lacking in the earlier stages. I am not sure that I would say TJEd views younger children as incomplete, but it does not call them to the same kind of learning as their older counterparts. I have to say though that I like the bit where there are phases for the grown-ups too. This makes it seem a lot more like there are just stages in life we all pass through and less like saying children are somehow incomplete or less than adults. And I think it is very encouraging to those of us who are getting older that, though our most creative, energetic years may be dwindling, there is still an important role for us in society.

Lastly, we come to the goal of education in TJEd. I have alluded to this above. TJEd calls itself leadership education, and its goal for society as a whole is to train leaders. The very name of this approach tells us where its founders look for models of good leadership– Thomas Jefferson and the other founding fathers. From the individual’s standpoint, the goal is to teach the student to think so that they can reach their potential and become a leader. From the TJEd website:

“Education means the ability to think, independently and creatively, and the skill of applying one’s knowledge in dealing with people and situations in the real world.”

The goals here seem very practical to me. That is, the ultimate focus is on the improvement of the individual for the sake of improving the society. And the improvement of society is in turn beneficial to all the individuals in it.

TJEd contains certain assumptions about what society needs and how it should be structured.  The fact is that there is a definite ideology behind Thomas Jefferson Education. While it claims to be based on Judeo-Christian values, the main feeling I get from it is political, not religious. Its founders, the DeMilles, have other organizations and websites with definite political views. The school founded on their ideas, George Wythe University, lists its goals as “protecting liberty, promoting free-enterprise, preserving moral ethics, limiting government, inspiring civility, and strengthening individuals, families and society–to further empower the human pursuit of happiness throughout the world.”

One of their websites, the Four Lost American Ideals, speaks of the importance of personal ownership of property, liberty, and public virtue which it defines as sacrificing one’s own good for the good of society. The fourth ideal (actually the second in their list) is providence which they define as belief in a higher power that has a mission and purpose for each individual to fulfill. But the nature of that higher power is not well-defined. There is nothing here that need point specifically to the God of the Bible. The website of George Wythe University speaks of the value of faith in general terms, but what that faith is in seems almost irrelevant to them. It strikes me as, well, a little bit deist which is what its namesake Thomas Jefferson was so perhaps that should be no surprise.

There is a lot on Thomas Jefferson Education that I like or at least don’t mind. I suppose that is because there is a lot that overlaps with the Charlotte Mason method which is the one I most closely adhere to. I also agree with most of their political views. But (and this is a big but), overall I can’t get behind their philosophy because I don’t think it focuses on what is most important. I don’t like an emphasis on faith without defining what that faith is. Faith is only as good as what you have faith in.  I believe there is one, true God and one way to know Him. Faith in the wrong things is probably worse than no faith at all.

And while I would probably vote for the same candidates that the DeMilles would, I think they overemphasize the political. They goals are worldly. They do not focus on eternal things. In the quote above from George Wythe University, they speak of the goal of empowering “the human pursuit of happiness throughout the world,” but I have never been a big fan of this phrase, “the pursuit of happiness” (sorry, Mr. Jefferson). It is one thing to have the right to pursue happiness. But it is another thing to do it. Happiness should never be our goal. Our goal is holiness. And sanctification often takes a harder, less impressive path than mere happiness.

So I guess my conclusion on this one is that if you agree with the DeMilles’ politics and their goals for your children, there are a lot of specifics in this approach that appeal to me. But I cannot accept it because its goals are not my goals.


14 responses to this post.

  1. Thank you so much for looking further into TJEd! For me, it doesn’t matter what the DeMilles’ personal religious beliefs are because I am not looking to follow a religious programme as such, but I wonder if they are Mormons because I was given their book by a Mormon acquaintance. And I wonder if they are wanting to keep this quiet in order to ensure the book gets wider readership? I live in the Middle East, not the US, and I am not well-informed but it seems to be there is quite a lot of politics to do with this religion inc. the fact some question whether it’s a religion at all. Anyway, I really like the look of TJEd so far but need to do a lot more research for myself too! I hope you get some good comments to help us further evaluate! Best wishes, Penny!


    • I also wondered if they were Mormon. Their bio says they spent some time in Utah which is a very Mormon state. But they also went to some Bible colleges which don’t sound particularly Mormon.


  2. […] to earn money and support oneself. Of the methods I have looked at to date, I would also include Thomas Jefferson Education in this category. Its goals are slightly different–to improve the individual for the sake of […]


  3. […] world around them and to lead others. This emphasis on leadership reminds me a little more of the Thomas Jefferson model of education than of the usual classical […]


  4. […] series on different approaches to homeschool (see the intro, unschooling, CM education, classical, TJEd, Christian classical, Montessori, and the Puritans’ Home School Curriculum, not to mention […]


  5. […] individuality is how we see property rights. The BPA and other approaches (I am thinking here of the Thomas Jefferson Education mostly) tend to reinforce American values like freedom and property rights. But in ancient […]


  6. […] where it is coming from. I am sure there are fine differences, but I would like to combine it with the Thomas Jefferson approach to education. Both value individual rights and liberty to a high degree. Both also look for answers to a large […]


  7. […] homeschool (see these posts on Unit Studies, Classical Ed, Christian classical ed, Charlotte Mason, Thomas Jefferson Education, Unschooling, the Puritans’ Home School curriculum, Montessori, and the Principle Approach). […]


  8. Posted by Yvette on March 19, 2013 at 1:10 pm

    Thank you! I was just very interested in this method, but wanted it to put next to Charlotte Mason, because it seemed more christian at some christian CM-sites. You confirmed my thinking. Thank you for the good summery.


  9. […] also been very encouraged lately by this article by Stephen Palmer at TJEd (see my post on TJEd here). I first ran across this article thanks to Homeschooling Middle East. The part that particularly […]


  10. […] Philosophically, it falls among the values- or character-based curricula, a category which includes A Thomas Jefferson Education and The Principle […]


  11. […] under this heading include A Thomas Jefferson Education (not inherently Christian; see my review here), the Biblical Principle Approach (I did a number of posts on this one; the conclusions are here), […]


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