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What is Thomas Jefferson Education and Homeschooling?

Updated on August 8, 2017

The Thomas Jefferson method is a classical approach to homeschooling. It's based on a "great books" curriculum. The Thomas Jefferson method, which can be used in homeschooling or group schooling, is outlined by Oliver Van De Mille in his various books on the topic.

De Mille believes that there are three methods of education. The method largely used in public schooling is considered to be a conveyer-belt "Soviet" style of education that does not teach students how to think, but what to think. The Thomas Jefferson method is designed to create thinkers and leaders.

Three Methods of Schooling

De Mille suggests that there are three types of schooling: public school, professional education and leadership education. The Thomas Jefferson method claims to be a system that trains people for leadership roles.

Public Education (conveyor-belt education) - according to De Mille, the public school system was designed to prepare students for the job market. Today, the overwhelming majority of American students receive this type of education. This is considered to be a “conveyor-belt education.” Public schools are run like factories with students being taught the same things at the same age. They all use the same textbooks. They are tested and graded the same way. Students are taught what to think, not how to think or lead. This is also referred to as "Soviet" because the bar is set low enough to ensure that most students can pass. It provides not just equal opportunity but equal outcomes as well.

Professional Education (the competitive conveyor belt) - this system of education prepares people to enter professional fields, such as law, business or medical. Graduates of a professional education are specialists who know when to think.

Leadership Education - this is the Thomas Jefferson method of education. This method prepares students to become leaders in government and business by teaching them how to think. Historically leaders came from the aristocracy and were trained in the classics using mentors, tutors and prep schools. Since America does not have an aristocracy leaders must come from all classes. This is a "natural aristocracy" to use a Jeffersonian term.

How the Thomas Jefferson Method Works

To properly implement the Thomas Jefferson method, homeschool parents must become mentors to their kids. This requires parents to read the classic works and discuss them with their children.

1. Classics, Not Textbooks - by reading classic works in philosophy, literature, science, economics and law, students learn how to think and how to lead. Essentially this method requires students to go directly to the source by reading works by Homer, Galileo, Orwell, Plato and Adam Smith. Children might read works like Shakespeare, Aesop's Fables, Dr. Suess, Charlotte's Web and The Gettysburg Address.

The Thomas Jefferson method of homeschooling is based on the kind of education Jefferson himself received
The Thomas Jefferson method of homeschooling is based on the kind of education Jefferson himself received

2. Mentors, Not Professors - a curriculum must be personalized for each student. The mentor asks the student what do they want to learn and what do they want to become.

3. Inspire, Not Require - students should spend a lot of time reading and studying on their own. They should not be forced to study.

4. Quality, Not Comformity - you either tell the student they have done "great work" or ask them to "do it again." Only high quality assignments are to be accepted. If students hate a book, find out why. Questioning gets students to think and explain.

5. Structure Time, not Content - don't micromanage content.

6. Simplicity, Not Complexity - read, write, do projects and discuss. Students must be given time to think during discussions.

7. YOU, not Them - the parent must inspire their children by pursuing their own education.

Find More Information

To understand the Thomas Jefferson education method in detail, you can read De Mille's books, which are available on or go to the official website

While this method may not be possible or desirable for most homeschooling parents there are aspects of it that parents can definitely implement. A focus on the classics and discussions can be hugely beneficial to a child's education and can easily be used alongside a more traditional curriculum.

If you're a secular or nonchristian homeschooler, it's important to note that the Thomas Jefferson method as outlined by De Mille is heavily Christian. This definitely has some influence on the great books list provided by De Mille. If you're a secular homeschooler, it is possible to read De Mille's book and implement his ideas but you may want to develop your own great books list.


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    • Learn Things Web profile imageAUTHOR

      Learn Things Web 

      6 years ago from California


      It's definitely a program that has interesting aspects to it. There are parts I like and parts that I don't care for. I love the literature approach to history as well. That's why I use Story of the World for history, even though I have some issues with it.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I'm part of a summer book group that's reading and discussing TJEd right now. I have my own issues with TJEd but I agree that classics and "living books" are far better than textbooks which provide a limited overview - usually full of factoids, abstracts, and hypotheticals - followed by leading questions (read and regurgitate). We've used a literature approach to history for several years and my kids LOVE it - you get a complete picture, all the characters, and it's easy to make a personal connection (which makes it memorable). It has made history come alive!

    • Learn Things Web profile imageAUTHOR

      Learn Things Web 

      7 years ago from California


      I like classical homeschooling as part of a larger curriculum. I think there's a lot of value in reading great books but I think textbooks are important as well. This also helps with any standards homeschoolers would be required to follow.

    • Theophanes profile image

      Theophanes Avery 

      7 years ago from New England

      I didn't realize there was a word for this sort of critical thinking training. I think it's admirable, though I personally believe religion should have no part in education (because if you raise the child to be a critical thinker they can come to a more genuine conclusion about their personal beliefs and choice of religion later on in life when they are capable of doing so.) Shame more people don't encourage this. Is it difficult to maintain legal standards when doing this sort of schooling? What does that entail?

    • kschimmel profile image

      Kimberly Schimmel 

      8 years ago from North Carolina, USA

      Outstanding hub! Charlotte Mason also advocated using real books instead of textbooks.

    • MonetteforJack profile image


      8 years ago from Tuckerton, NJ

      The TJ Ed is very similar to the Montessori way. A very interesting and useful hub. I voted up!

    • Learn Things Web profile imageAUTHOR

      Learn Things Web 

      8 years ago from California

      No, I don't recognise you but it is funny that we have this commonality. I just became aware of the Thomas Jefferson concept recently but I had actually been doing it to some extent with my 6 year old. We have been reading classics and doing discussions. And I have just started having her do simple projects based on each chapter. So, reading De Mille's book was kind of a surprise because he was suggesting what I had already been doing.

      I think this approach could be tried by any parent on some level. For me, I want to continue doing those things that will prepare my kids for the job market someday. But I do also want to raise kids who know how to think and question.

    • Miss Mellie profile image

      M.S. Ross 

      8 years ago

      Okay; between your River Springs hub and now this one about TJ Ed, I suspect you and I may know each other in real life! (Do you recognize me from my profile pic?)

      TJ Ed is an educational approach that is most fully realized when implemented within a homeschool environment; however, its principles can also be successfully applied in households where kids go off to school. As far as the (minor, imho) religious aspect of TJ Ed, seasoned homeschooling families regularly adjust curricula in general to suit their needs, whether that be to increase or decrease religiosity or adjust the focus on other viewpoints. Tailoring curricula is a wonderful educational skill for anyone to possess, homeschooling or not. Voted this great article up and useful!

    • lundmusik profile image


      8 years ago from Tucson AZ

      very very interesting!!!

    • dallas93444 profile image

      Dallas W Thompson 

      8 years ago from Bakersfield, CA

      Any process of education as a key componenet of success is the instructor... The educational "moment" may under a tree.... Thanks for sharing. Flag up!


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