By John Ragosta
I think that I am still recovering from the 2014 Summer Jefferson Symposium. While it was all great fun, speaking for myself, the intense mental focus for several days on Thomas Jefferson’s personal relationships, and how they help us to understand him and the politics of the early republic, was mentally very tiring. To unwind, I spent some time Sunday afternoon in one of my favorite pastimes: wild black raspberry picking – a relatively mindless activity with great ancillary benefits.
Over the course of several days, I learned a lot, and as I suggested on Thursday evening, I think that the learning has just begun. The topic – Thomas Jefferson: Family, Friends, and Foes – is so broad, that we will never exhaust the insights that it provides. Not only can we use his interactions with those around him to see more clearly who Jefferson was and what he hoped to accomplish, but as we think about the developing American political system in the early republic we can gain insights by recognizing the central role of the politics of the personal, a discussion which pervaded our discussions during the symposium. As Joanne Freeman writes, “The political significance of friendship sheds light on the question of Jefferson’s political involvement…. If Jefferson’s active socializing is recognized as ‘subterranean’ political activity, then Jefferson was indeed more political than previously believed….” Each of the persons whom we explored tells us something new and interesting not only about Jefferson’s relationships, but about how he was constantly and consistently working to manage relationships – whether in France, in the nation’s capital, or atop Monticello – as part of a broader agenda of fighting monarchy and promoting a free republic, religious freedom, and liberal education.
We can often understand political figures better through their “conversations;” the dialectic of human interaction can be a far more effective tool to comprehend the past, even when those actions may be infused with posturing.
This, though, is to repeat myself from Thursday and Saturday. I write, however, because of another discussion that several of us shared Saturday evening.
When I teach college students, I “cold-call” on people who have not raised their hands and insist that they all participate in the discussion. I acknowledge on the first day of class that this is very uncomfortable for many people, but it seems to me that it is an essential element of a liberal arts education. We cannot sit by and simply observe – otherwise we could replace the lecture hall with MOOCs (massive online open-enrollment classes); we must engage with our colleagues and become part of the intellectual exchange. This is part of becoming not only an educated individual, but a participant in our society, our nation, and our world.
Conversation – listening to hear what others are saying and responding appropriately, and respectfully – is a skill and habit that is needed today more than ever. While Jefferson was no demi-god, and had personal animosities and political enemies – and could throw an insult with the best of them, he never stopped participating in the dialogue. By encouraging a liberal arts education, and fighting “every form of tyranny over the mind of man,” he promoted the type of civil engagement that our nation continues to need. Programs like the Summer Jefferson Symposium, more than educating us about a long dead Founder, albeit one who contributed to our nation and world greatly, are intended to do the same.
Thank you all for participating in our conversation.