Skip to main content

“A Complete and Generous Education”: Milton and Jefferson

ISSUE:  Spring 1979

Many of our predecessors in the academic world, touched by the quality of their education, have devised plans for educating the young. One of these plans sets forth a curriculum that has been called impractical, idealistic, even impossible. And perhaps it is—and that may be a good reason for reviewing it. Despite its impracticalities, it is a reminder of the ideals of education held by the Renaissance and by the Enlightenment as well. A review of it should be an encouragement to use what we have learned in the best and most benevolent way. For this curriculum illustrates a noble attempt to bring about the attainment of a liberal education—an education that had two goals, one Hebraic, one Greek: first, “to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright” and thus restoring us to a close relationship with Him; and second, to fit “a man to perform justly, skillfully, and magnanimously, all the offices, both private and public, of peace and of war.” According to John Milton, the great intellect among our poets, to secure these goals would constitute “a complete and generous education,” one that joins the ideals of private conduct and public service.

These goals, as Milton’s editors have long pointed out, rest on impeccable precedents, both Biblical and classical. The Psalmist who saw all men alike in their corruption after the Fall was repeated in St. Paul’s judgment that all have fallen short of the glory of God. The Greeks as well called for the perfecting of fallen man. Plato, for example, in his Theaetetus declared that “God is . . .utterly and perfectly righteous, and there is nothing so like him as that one of us who in turn becomes most nearly perfect in righteousness.”

The goal of wise and active citizenship also goes back to Plato: in his Laws he advocates “schooling from boyhood in goodness which inspires the recipient with passionate and ardent desire to become a perfect citizen and how to wield and submit to righteous rule. “Quintilian, to move from Greece to Rome, saw that his ideal philosopher-orator should be a “good man . . .who can really play his part as a citizen and is capable of meeting the demands both of public and private business.” A host of other writers had emphasized the essential function of education as preparation for citizenship, but Milton will overgo them, as he does his predecessors in writing his great epic, by insisting upon educating not only for citizenship but for leadership. He will give a specific method, “the right path of a virtuous and noble education,” by insisting that secular classical studies and practical knowledge might repair the ruins of the Fall so that “out of that knowledge to love Him, to imitate Him, to be like Him” we will be led to the highest perfection. And in such a way we will reach as well the status of ideal citizen-leader.

By what direction did Milton come to this “right path”? Through his own schooling and his teaching, it appears, he evolved his proposals, presented in 1644 to Samuel Hartlib, also an indefatigable educational theorist among other things who had established a school in Chichester “to advance piety, learning, morality, and other exercises of industry, not usual then in common schools.” Milton’s own formal education began at home with his “preceptor,” Thomas Young, a tutor that Milton regarded “in the light of a father” and with whom he continued an affectionate relationship in later years. When he went to St. Paul’s School, he joined the traditional stream of English schooling. The ancient and prestigious school had been refounded and endowed in 1512 by John Colet, who declared that the students were to be taught good literature, both Latin and Greek, but “specifically Christian authors that wrote their wisdom with clean and chaste Latin, either in verse or prose”; Milton would not so restrict the reading that his students would do. Nor did Colet’s successor, Alexander Gill, a noted Latinist, critic, and divine, who was headmaster when Milton entered in 1620.In Anthony ą Wood’s praise, he had “such an excellent way of training up youth, that none in his time went beyond him. Whence ‘twas, that many noted persons in church and state did esteem it the greatest of their happiness, that they had been educated under him.” In his writings Gill shows a wide acquaintance with English authors, not just those of clean and chaste Latin. Spenser he admired greatly, preferring him to Homer; it may have been this early exposure to a Spenserian that formed Milton’s judgment that the author of The Faerie Queene was a better teacher than Scotus or Aquinas.

In the 17th century, grammar school education was largely Latin, more Latin, and perhaps a little Greek—writing, reciting, memorizing. About all the vernacular learning was the required memorization in English of the Ten Commandments and the reading of the Articles of Faith. To be able to write prose in the style of Cicero and poetry that imitated Horace’s—these were the aims of education. The schoolday ran from eight, or sometimes seven, to five o’clock; there was no summer recess; the curriculum by calcified tradition was inflexible. No wonder Shakespeare’s schoolboy went

      whining . . . with his satchel
    And shining morning face, creeping like a snail
    Unwillingly to school.

(One of the first rules they learned in Lily’s Latin grammar, a book that had been in use since the 1540’s and continued to be used through the 18th century, surely one of the most resented texts in academic history, was that they should come to school with washed faces; that “morning face” was not shining with smiles but with the glow of scrubbing.)

At St. Paul’s—where the motto “Either teach or learn, or leave” was painted on the windows—Milton reviewed Latin grammar, began Greek, read Sallust, Vergil, Cicero, Martial, and after some minor Greek poets arrived at Homer, Euripides, and others; because of Alexander Gill’s interest in Hebrew, he read parts of the Psalter. All the way along, showing that self-discipline that would mark his life, he was adding to his schoolwork by his own reading. In his Defensio Secunda in explaining his blindness, he declared that “from the age of twelve I rarely retired to bed from my studies before mid-night; this was the first thing that proved pernicious to my eyes, to the natural weakness of which were added frequent headaches.” Reading by candlelight, not only at night but in those grey winter days, certainly hastened the coming of the serene drop, as he called it, that clouded his vision.

His days at St. Paul’s were pleasant ones, not only because of Gill but the excitement of study. Gill had a reputation for whipping the unprepared, birching them into their Latin; but Milton, by his diligence in his work, may have escaped Gill’s wrath and rod.


For a while, at least, it was far different at Cambridge. He was 16 when he arrived at the University; he was assigned to a dormitory known as “Rat’s Hole,” and he found his colleagues “the gentry of England, fed with the scragged and thorny lectures of monkish and miserable sophistry.” They, in turn, nicknamed him the Lady of Christ’s, after his college; it came, he explained later, from his slight build and fair complexion, but it may have come just as well from his rather austere character. He had already dedicated himself to strict chastity and self-respect, believing that, if he was to dedicate himself to poetry, he himself “ought to be a true poem.”

But the greatest difference was in his tutor. Far from being the kindly Gill or fatherly Young, William Chappel was “a very acute learned man, and most painful and vigilant tutor”; that word painful is temptingly ambiguous. Chappel was known for the “strictness” of his conversation and his skill at public disputation—one of his opponents, it is said, fainted by the sheer pressure of his argumentation. He later rose through the degrees of the church, although reluctantly, to be Bishop of Cork. He suffered consequently at the hands of Parliament because of his friendship with Archbishop Laud and Stafford. Toward the end of it, he wrote his life in Latin hexameters. He appears to have been inflexible, disputatious, and insecurely dull. He is remembered today only for his clash with Milton.

We do not know the facts of the disagreement between Milton and Chappel, but one there was. In his second year Milton was “rusticated,” suspended and sent home, possibly after having been whipped. When Milton returned, for he did not miss a term even with such rustication, he went back unhappily “to the reedy fens and . . .the hum of the noisy school.” He was assigned to another tutor, Nathaniel Tovey, a man some 15 years younger than Chappel and only eleven years older than Milton.

But whatever the differences in tutors, the methods at Cambridge were nearly the same as at St. Paul’s: the students, however, were now expected to become proficient in “the Latin disputation, a public debate of some harmless, unimportant topic, in which the youthful speakers demonstrated their command of rhetoric, logic, metaphysics, and a mass of undigested reading,” as W. R. Parker has described it. Milton preserved some of his disputations, as others have kept their juvenilia: his, more worthy than the usual, nevertheless have such insipid titles as “Whether Night or Day Is the More Excellent” (a prolusion he thought more appropriate for poetry than oratory and one which thus anticipates the companion poems “L’Allegro” and “II Penseroso”) or “That Sportive Exercises Are Not Adverse to Philosophic Studies.” One can well understand—with assignments like these—why he was eager to learn more about subjects not taught in the University: natural and social sciences, for example. And, surely in retrospect at least, he must have also resented the professional monopoly of the clergy who trained students only for the church. In such an academic-clerical life one provided for progeny not through marriage so much as by teaching.

Then in 1644, twelve years after his Cambridge M. A. and at the invitation of Samuel Hartlib, he published a small pamphlet (the original of eight pages is simply titled Of Education) that he hoped would remedy the genteel ignorance and the bad teaching, the inflexible demands of a degree that led only to the churchly life. But it would be done not by reform, but by abolishing both Oxford and Cambridge and by making formal education more effective. His plan would not produce priests, but more leaders in public life.

He would provide at government expense academies in every town; each would have a suitable house on spacious grounds, and each would lodge about 130 students and 20 attendants (a ratio of seven to one); students would enter when twelve and remain until 21.Milton is silent on what happens before their matriculation, but it is evident that they must be well prepared for the rigors of his curriculum. Aside from the dormitories, of course, there were to be dining halls offering a diet plain, healthful, and moderate. Exercise was to be regularly prescribed for an hour and half before their noon meal, unless they are gotten up earlier: first, he recommends “the exact use of their weapon,” the sword, to keep them nimble, strong, and well in breath which, he thought, would also make them grow large and tall, inspire them with courage, and (with appropriate lectures) hate the cowardice of doing wrong. Milton prided himself on his abilities as a fencer, and his justification of the art came surely from his own abilities. He also recommends wrestling, “wherein Englishmen were wont to excel,” in which they could prove their individual strengths. Finally, in a surprise just before supper, the students might be called out for military drill, first on foot and then on horseback as they grow older. He did not overlook the necessity of the sound body to support his rigorous academic training; he even couples the two by suggesting that, after exercise while they were cooling off, they should listen to music “to smooth [their] . . .rustic harshness and distempered passions,” as well as after supper, too, to aid in digesting those moderate diets.

More important, of course, are the academic studies. As he must, Milton begins with Latin grammar. The readings, as we will see, come from widely diverse authors. He did not believe with Colet that the readings should be only from Christian authors who wrote in clean and chaste Latin; all the ancients lay open to him. He did not follow the opinion of Juan Luis Vives, the tutor for the court of Henry VIII, that the Greeks and Latins were tillers of “poisonous fields,” nor did he agree with Comenius, the last Moravian bishop, that they were writers of “lying histories and fables.” Along with mastering Latin grammar, he adds arithmetic and geometry, hoping they can be taught as a kind of game. Early in their studies come the “easy grounds of religion and the story of scripture.”

We cannot follow in detail the reading, often in authors who now are only esoteric names. But the nine-year curriculum can be condensed in a few paragraphs. Note in what follows how a subject is built on knowledge already gained and how from it will spring new subjects, often applied to practical matters. The first books read are written in an easy Latin about agriculture, surely proper for an agrarian society of the 1600’s; moreover, with this knowledge, these young students can improve the tillage of the land they will later inherit. From these books, too, they will gain knowledge of meteorology, mineralogy, botany, and biology. And having mastered geometry, they go on to trigonometry for its practical uses in architecture and navigation. Then a text in practical medicine follows.

Three years into their schooling, they are now introduced to poetry, but this poetry must be about things already learned—poems about country life, pastorals and eclogues. And for the first time, there is a break in the academy life: they take field trips to talk with the actual practitioners of the subjects that they have studied—hunters and fishermen, shepherds and gardeners, architects and engineers. The emphasis here falls on the practical.

Having been introduced earlier to Greek and Hebrew, now another foreign language is added, most likely Italian, easily learned after their Latin training. And they are introduced to ethical and moral problems; when the principles of right conduct are grasped, they then may be ready for dramas illustrative of good household management and family life.

Up to this point, the curriculum proposed was not an idle exercise, as Professor Parker has reminded us. Milton had been tutoring his nephews, orphaned by his sister’s death, for four or five years, and this is how they had been taught, probably with severe discipline. But he had succeeded so well in giving them a mastery of foreign languages that they became professional translators later.

To continue with the curriculum: after a study of law, politics, and justice, the students, now ready to enter their last three years, are to be instructed in theology and church history and finally introduced to great literature—epics, histories, orations, and tragedies. Milton evidently believed that one had to prepare for the reading of masterpieces, much of which deserved to be memorized. After a study of logic, rhetoric, and poetics, they are now ready for the final year—one devoted to a single activity, composition. Not until their heads were filled were they to attempt to write, not until they had something to say:

From hence [Milton declares] and not till now, will be the right season for forming them to be able writers. . .in every excellent matter, when they shall be thus fraught with an universal insight into things.

Enough for the curriculum: you see where it has led—to a wide acquaintance with humanistic values, not the empty disputations and dulling grammar of the time, but to a practical knowledge of worldly affairs, to a movement away from stultifying years spent in Latinate bondage, to a restored relationship with God through his works and the words of those who praise.

One wonders if Milton had in mind his own ambitious scheme when he came to write those lines in Paradise Lost urging temperance in worldly learning. Had he been too zealous in setting forth a plan for those years between twelve and 21, he may have asked himself. For he wrote,

    But Knowledge is as food, and needs no less
    Her Temperance over Appetite, to know
    In measure what the mind may well contain,
    Oppresses else with Surfeit, and soon turns
    Wisdom to Folly, as Nourishment to Wind.
            VII. 126—130

Beyond the sheer magnitude of his plan, other faults are evident: it is an elitist education, not universal; it is an admirable training ground if all the students are adolescent Miltons. It is an inflexible program without electives. And it is for men only, for coeducation lies far in the future. Women, if at all, were tutored at home, as were Milton’s daughters who could read to him in several languages. But as was said of Lady Burghley, who could read Greek, she had “more learning than is necessary to her sex.” The proposal was, however, an attack upon the establishment, a call for dramatic renovation and revolution, and a setting of a goal that even in his day must have seemed remote for use in all of England.


Milton’s ideas of education have their echo, as you may have recognized, in some of Jefferson’s ideas. Although there are some great differences, Jefferson, like Milton, would seek out and use for the public good the aristocracy of worth and genius, “the most precious gift of nature,” for education was not to be for the gentry only. He, like Milton, had been dissatisfied with his college education, believing that it should have dealt more generously with the “useful sciences.” He proposed the formal study of law, medicine, history, and modern languages at William and Mary and the abolishment of the chairs of divinity. Milton also would forbid, it seems, a professional school of divinity, but would establish outside the academies schools of law and physic. Indeed, he goes so far to advocate later that all clergy should have a craft and not be dependent upon the charities of the church. There surely was enough theology taught in his proposed curriculum to satisfy the intellect of one who wanted to preach. Jefferson, as is well known, excluded a school of theology in his university, but invited denominations to set up seminaries close by so that the students might have the benefit of both institutions.

Jefferson, unlike Milton, succeeded in setting up a secularized institution supported by the state. Its curriculum was much more flexible than Milton’s, but first on his list of the points at which higher education was to begin is this:

To form the statesmen, legislators and judges on whom public prosperity and individual happiness are so much to depend.

That is an echo ringing down nearly two centuries of Milton’s “complete and generous education” of fitting men for public service. And in the same report, the one that is the foundation of the University of Virginia, Jefferson concludes that education should form students “to the habits of reflection and correct action, rendering them examples of virtue to others and of happiness within themselves,” surely a way of repairing the ruins of our first parents.

But more specifically, both Jefferson and Milton saw foreign languages as a tool; Jefferson associated gaining a knowledge of history with them “because both may be attained by the same course of study.” The fullest benefits come from reading authorities in the original, they both agree. Both men, moreover, insist upon an orderly progression of subjects, one building on another. In an uncanny reflection, Milton and Jefferson would have their charges proceed in the same sequence from mathematics, through physics, engineering, natural science, and thence to the theory of medicine. And both would place rhetoric and composition near the end of the curriculum. Jefferson, too, saw military science as a necessity in education; the manual of arms, he declared, was beneficial for exercise as well as for its military value.

There are differences, of course, particularly in Jefferson’s ideas of universal education, and many of their agreements spring from the good common sense they both possessed. But the similarities, particularly of the final goals of education, are striking. Both conceived of education as the basic foundation of the commonwealth, the essential and inescapable necessity for wise rule and citizenship. Dumas Malone has written that Jefferson’s “chief concern was for the attainment of liberty, and this provides the best single clue, not only to his motives in the Revolution, but also to his entire career.” Liberty without enlightenment, for him as for Milton, was a contradiction in concepts.

We have ample proof that Jefferson knew his Milton, although there is no specific evidence that he read the essay on education. The library that he sold to Congress in 1815 contained Milton’s poems and prose works, and the University of Virginia’s library housed in the Dome Room of the Rotunda held them, too. His enemies so often compared him with Satan in Paradise Lost that he knew the poem, it seems, well. For example, in extolling the persistent virtues of the defeated Saxons after the Battle of Hastings, he quoted admiringly in a letter to an unknown professor of history Satan’s great speech that arouses his fallen legions from the fiery lake of Hell:

      What though the field be lost?
    All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,
    And study of revenge, immortal hate,
    And courage never to submit or yield.
                    I. 105—108

He admitted that “a phrase or two” in his Notes on the State of Virginia came from Milton’s Areopagitica, the stinging attack on censorship. About half of his “Notes on Episcopacy” came from two of Milton’s tracts on religious freedom, where the polemicist’s outspoken anticlericalism is at its most intense. As George F. Sensabaugh has shown, Jefferson found Milton congenial and used him in his severest contests involving church and state: “It is therefore safe to say that Milton, through Jefferson, contributed tangibly to the settlement of religious freedom in Virginia.”

It would be satisfying to know that Jefferson read Of Education, but I have found no proof that he did. In some ways, it may not matter. Both men represent the kind of intellect that would arrive, through devotion to country and to conscience and to mind, at similar goals of education. One of them, the culmination of the English Renaissance, and the other, the epitome of the American Enlightenment, join in the insistence upon civic leadership and personal integrity. Both ideals needed to be emphasized in London in 1644 and at Rockfish Gap in 1818.The necessity is perennial.

If I have found no proof that Jefferson read Milton’s essay, there is an unexpected way to join the poet and the patriot. In 1800 Jefferson wrote to Dr. Joseph Priestly, the exiled scientist and theologian, asking for his help in planning the University of Virginia. He was reluctant to ask for such help from so famous a person, but concluded his letter,

I do not propose to give you all this trouble merely of my own head, that would be arrogance. It has been the subject of consultation among the ablest and highest characters of our State. . . . They will receive your ideas with the greatest deference and thankfulness. We shall be here [in Philadelphia] certainly for two months to come; but should you not have leisure to think of it before Congress adjourns, it will come safely to me afterwards by post, the nearest post office being Milton.

And, as they say, the rest is history.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading