~ Thomas Jefferson
The US is currently basking, if that is the correct word, in the victory of the US Women’s Team at the World Cup. Supposedly it is some type of triumph of the American spirit, though no one is very certain in what way. Given, however, the team’s less than gracious behavior on the pitch (and off it) and the question of their long-term effect on the country in terms of their example as role models, the words of Thomas Jefferson are worthy of reconsideration.
Written in 1785 from Paris to his teenage nephew Peter Carr, whom Jefferson was grooming to succeed him both in politics and as head of the family, the letter was in response to the uncle discovering that Peter had fallen behind with his academic work. More precisely, the boy had not made a worthy showing of his ability upon arrival at his preparatory school. As a contextual note, Jefferson personally oversaw the instruction in Latin and Greek of all of Jefferson-Carr children, boys and girls, in his family, and based on the letter he believed that there was a loss of progress during the intervening months between his own departure for Paris and Peter’s removal to boarding school.
Consequently, Jefferson commanded that Peter limit himself to reading exclusively ancient history and literature in original, with the exception of the poets from the 1600s and some advanced treatises on the sciences, and that the boy begin learning Spanish, in addition to French. This entire intellectual regimen was in addition to Peter’s regular scholastic work. The purpose of Jefferson’s ban on sports was, aside from his obvious objections, that they did not encourage independence of spirit.
The full quote regarding exercise and the place of the body, as well as Jefferson’s vision for the proper education of the citizen, is as follows:
I have long ago digested a plan for you, suited to the circumstances in which you will be placed. This I will detail to you from time to time as you advance. For the present I advise you to begin a course of antient history, reading every thing in the original and not in translations. First read Goldsmith’s history of Greece. This will give you a digested view of that feild. Then take up antient history in the detail, reading the following books in the following order. Herodotus. Thucydides. Xenophontis hellenica. Xenophontis Anabasis. Quintus Curtius. Justin. This shall form the first stage of your historical reading, and is all I need mention to you now. The next will be of Roman history. From that we will come down to Modern history. In Greek and Latin poetry, you have read or will read at school Virgil, Terence, Horace, Anacreon, Theocritus, Homer. Read also Milton’s paradise lost, Ossian, Pope’s works, Swift’s works in order to form your style in your own language. In morality read Epictetus, Xenophontis memorabilia, Plato’s Socratic dialogues, Cicero’s philosophies. In order to assure a certain progress in this reading, consider what hours you have free from the school and the exercises of the school. Give about two of them every day to exercise; for health must not be sacrificed to learning. A strong body makes the mind strong. As to the species of exercise, I advise the gun. While this gives a moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprize, and independance to the mind. Games played with the ball and others of that nature, are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind. Let your gun therefore be the constant companion of your walks.
The only purpose for a “strong body” was to enable the mind; it was not a goal in and of itself. Jefferson’s decision on this matter also reflected a growing concern – one which unfortunately proved accurate – that none of his nephews possessed strong character or great integrity, a fear which he openly mentioned to Peter. By extension, part of the challenge was for Peter to find the courage to defy the pressures of boarding school, having the conviction to refuse to participate in the activities of the other boys. It was a test on Jefferson’s part: was his nephew capable of sacrificing schoolyard popularity in exchange for a greater, individual goal?
Currently, the prescription of the gun as superior to the ball is beyond politically incorrect. While this element might very well explain the obscurity of Jefferson’s educational prescription, the more likely explanation is that his anti-sport attitude is a threat to the modern American educational system. Since the early 2010s, it is recognized that there is a problem with the majority of US tax funds going to school sports, rather than to academics. Since there is a correlation between declining academic performance and increased sports presence in the schools, the spending problem is more one of taxpayer value for money.
Jefferson predicted the coming problem of communal expenditure in violation of individual benefit, and, despite his current reputation as the “father of public schooling,” ultimately decided that private schooling was the only approach compatible with the American ethos. That said, he did support the existence of basic public schools, which would educate the poor through year five, in order to be consistent with his other policy of disenfranchising the illiterate from the voting process.
Interestingly, he and John Addams, with whom he communicated frequently on this topic, agreed, in a most un-egalitarian way, that the classical curriculum should not be taught in the public schools. Simultaneously, they believed that national leadership, public and private, should only be drawn from individuals who were classically educated because of the superior reasoning and rhetorical skills, along with cultural appreciation, that it provided. The reason for denying those educated at the expense of the state the better curriculum was to incentivize parents to be responsible, without compelling them to be, through clearly aligning the best interests of the child with the private sector. Considering that the average US student ranks near the bottom of the developed world in terms of academic ability, not achievement but basic ability, while at the same time students are increasingly attracted to the illogical demagoguery of politicians, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, there is much to be said for the wisdom of the Founding Fathers approach to dividing education into leaders and followers.
It would be inaccurate to lay the poor quality of education exclusively at the feet of school sports. Rather the sports expenditures and focus are a symptom of the problem, which is an inversion of values and a disinterest in genuine quality and competitiveness. The consequences, though, align with Jefferson’s implicit prediction to his nephew: a population without character and without thought.
 In other words, the average American high school graduate isn’t even qualified for admittance to the best American universities.