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Winners announced for Thomas Jefferson essay contest

The 15th annual Philip L. Carret Endowment Thomas Jefferson Essay Contest asked students to write about the relationship between public education and the common good in the 21st century.

From left: Greg Melanson, Avery McGaha and Yasmine Arrington.

Elon University student Avery McGaha took the top prize in the 15th annual Philip L. Carret Endowment Thomas Jefferson Essay Contest, the winners of which were announced April 16 with a recognition dinner inside the Center for the Arts.

Greg Melanson and Yasmine Arrington received second and third place, respectively.

Students wrote on the following topic:

Thomas Jefferson was committed to the idea of public education, often writing about the cause in private letters and proposing several schemes for state-sponsored schools. In a particularly elegant preamble to a measure he proposed to the Virginia General Assembly in 1778, Jefferson wrote:

"Whereas it appeareth that however certain forms of government are better calculated than others to protect individuals in the free exercise of their natural rights, and are at the same time themselves better guarded against degeneracy, yet experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms, those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny; and it is believed that the most effectual means of preventing this would be, to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large, and more especially to give them knowledge of those facts, which history exhibiteth, that, possessed thereby of the experience of other ages and countries, they may be enabled to know ambition under all its shapes, and prompt to exert their natural powers to defeat its purposes; And whereas it is generally true that that people will be happiest whose laws are best, and are best administered, and that laws will be wisely formed, and honestly administered, in proportion as those who form and administer them are wise and honest; whence it becomes expedient for promoting the publick happiness that those person, whom nature hath endowed with genius and virtue, should be rendered by liberal education worthy to receive, and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens, and that they should be called to that charge without regard to wealth, birth or other accidental condition or circumstance; but the indigence of the greater number disabling them from so educating, at their own expence, those of their children whom nature hath fitly formed and disposed to become useful instruments for the public, it is better that such should be sought for and educated at the common expence of all, than that the happiness of all should be confided to the weak or wicked." —"A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge" (1778)

As he made clear above, Jefferson thought that educated citizens would be better able to promote the “publick happiness.” Much has changed in the two centuries since Jefferson wrote, from the range of educational choices available to Americans, to the proportion of the population who pursues an education, to the definition of “publick happiness.” What is the relationship between public education and the common good in the twenty-first century? 

First Place
Avery McGaha
North Carolina
Senior (Major: Environmental Studies)

McGaha's essay, "A Crusade Against Ignorance: Thomas Jefferson's Enduring Values in the Digital Age," won the $1,000 top prize. He will also receive an all-expenses-paid visit to Thomas Jefferson's home at Monticello, Va. This was the second year in a row that McGaha won first place in the contest.

Second Place
Greg Melanson
New Hampshire
Sophomore (Major:

Melanson's essay, "Public Education's Departure from Its Original Intentions," won the $500 second place award.

Third Place
Yasmine Arrington
Washington, D.C.
Junior (Major: Strategic Communications and History)

Arrington's essay, "It Is Still Relevant: Public Education's Role in Promoting the Common Good in the 21st Century," received the $100 third place award.

The Philip L. Carret "Thomas Jefferson Essay Competition" is an endowed essay contest created in 1997 when Carret, a longtime New York investor, fell in love with Elon University after a visit to campus the previous year. Carret promoted the contest to have students reflect on the ideals and principles embodied in Thomas Jefferson's life and career.

Eric Townsend,
4/17/2014 8:50 AM