Monday, February 3, 2014

"Rot, Riot and Rebellion" by Rex Bowman and Carlos Santos (2013)

When Thomas Jefferson first stated that “the tree of Liberty needs watered from time to time with the blood of tyrants” I don’t think he ever envisioned himself in the role of the Tyrant. But that is exactly what happened when he was forced to confront the students at his dream, the University of Virginia in 1825, just one year before his death.

Discipline at the school was non-existent; the idea being that young gentlemen could be trusted to act upon their honor. And act they did. These sons of southern aristocratic plantation owners had such thin skins; and thickly inflated senses of honor; that they were in a perpetual state of dueling with one another, and even there professors.

Such was the situation that Jefferson, only one year prior to his death in 1826, was forced on occasion, to make the 8 mile journey from his home at Monticello, to the University in order to quell the problems there. On one such occasion he was struck speechless and broke into tears. It was hard for him to see his dream school begin its life in a state of disgrace. To make matters worse, one of the leaders of the student rebellion was his own grand-nephew.

The story behind that day and how it came to be in the first place; is the subject of this wonderful little book by Messrs. Bowman and Santos as they explore the beginnings of Jefferson’s dream of higher education in what is considered to be America’s first public University.

From its first conception by Jefferson as the first public university in America the whole idea was plagued with problems and disagreements about how, and who, should fund it. The authors give a very accurate accounting of all the machinations which went into the project.

But by far the most enjoyable portion of the book is the story of its first few decades of students. They flogged their professors, misused their servants, drank to excess, gambled profanely, and otherwise did their best to squander their own futures as well as Mr. Jefferson’s dream.

The story of how the student body was finally tamed, and how the school became the model of Mr. Jefferson’s original vision make this book a very worthy chronicle of the history of higher education in America. And, through the antics of some its earliest alumni; including Edgar Allan Poe; it is also just plain fun to read it, and realize that, with the exception of the students having servants, not much has changed in regards to student life in the almost two centuries since Jefferson’s experiment first came into being.

No comments:

Post a Comment