Happy Anniversary to UVA!

Posted on Mar 7, 2013

HAPPY ANNIVERSARY to the UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA! Today marks the 188th year since classes began— on Monday morning, March 7, 1825.

Despite the fact that the buildings weren’t yet completed, and that most of the Academical Village leaked terribly when it rained; and even though they didn’t have enough mattresses or lamp oil, they finally opened their doors to students after a decade of planning, of politics, and of construction.

About thirty students were on hand that morning in 1825. They filed into the front room of Pavilion 7 (the first one built), and took turns handing over their money to the Proctor and entering their names in the Matriculation Book. That very book, by the way, is still in Alderman Library’s Special Collections. The first UVa student was a young man from the Richmond area named Burwell Starke.

Then the young men turned and shook the hand of the tall, white-haired old man who was sitting in a chair in the corner, quietly watching that historic morning unfold. He was the Rector, the founder and self-described father of the University, a former President, and the author of the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson was then just a few weeks shy of his 82nd birthday. And on that Monday morning, his life-long dream was coming true before his eyes.

He had envisioned a new kind of school for a new country— one that would unshackle the classroom from the medieval grip of religious dogmas and self-serving political doctrines; a classroom where teachers were free to follow truth wherever it may lead; where students were free to follow their own interests and pick their own courses; the kind of classroom that would value science and art and ethics over a blind obedience to ancient superstition; a school that would always serve to embody that turning point in human history from a medieval society to the modern world.

Thomas Jefferson envisioned a community of learners, scientists and artists all, engaged together in the hard work of making real those enlightenment ideals that were at the heart of the revolution. By protecting, strengthening and passing on those ideals, this new school would be the insurance policy for 1776. For here, the flame of the enlightenment would burn brighter than anywhere else in the world.

And that work began 188 years ago today, March 7, 1825, the first day of classes at the University of Virginia.

(photo of a life mask of Thomas Jefferson from October 1825)

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