How the South Dominated American Education

tags: Reconstruction, education, Southern history, Progressive Era

John (aka Jay) Heffron is Professor of Educational History and Culture and Director of the MA Program in Educational Leadership and Societal Change at Soka University of America. He completed his doctorate in American history at the University of Rochester, working under the late cultural and intellectual historian Christopher Lasch. Prior to joining Soka University of America in 1996, he was a professor in the department of educational foundations in the College of Education, University of Hawaii at Manoa. From Soka University’s opening in 2001 he served as a member of the humanities concentration and from 2005 through 2016 as Dean of Students. He also served as associate director of the Pacific Basin Research Center from 1997 until 2014, in which capacity he edited and co-authored four books, most recently The Evolution of Development Thinking: Governance, Economics, Assistance, and Security. In 2019 he was awarded with the BELMAS Management in Education 2018 Best Paper of the Year.


The Rise of the South in American Thought and Education: The Rockefeller Years (1902-1917) and Beyond by John Heffron.  Reprinted by permission of Peter Lang Publishing, Inc, NY.


Meant not so much as an impeachment of the region than a query around its apotheosis—a false one—from the post-Reconstruction period forward, the book is a study of the generalization of southern values and institutions, including but not limited to their racial and class dimensions, to a national reform movement in education in which private philanthropy—first and foremost the Rockefeller General Education Board (GEB)—played a decisive role. In 1903 Lyman Abbott, editor of The Outlook, a magazine famous for crossing religious lines with social and political ones, addressed delegates to the Sixth Conference for Education in the South, a conference providing many northerners (among them the Rockefellers) their first introduction to Southern educational conditions. There he opined: “We may well hope that the present Southern educational enthusiasm may spread to the Northern states, where education is in danger of becoming somewhat perfunctory, may inspire it with new and deeper life, and may end by creating throughout the Nation an educational revival, the modern analogue of the evangelistic revivals of a past epoch …” 


The post-Reconstruction history leading up to the establishment of the GEB a year earlier in 1902 provides important background for understanding why the Board and its friends should have been so interested in the Southern example, or what it viewed as such. Eager to reconcile change with continuity, dynamic economic development with cultural and political stability, industrial statesmen like the Rockefellers understood the country’s need for orderly change, which would integrate the latest scientific ideas with its most cherished traditions. For the GEB, the triumvirate of science, southernness (the median—a centripetal one), and vocationalism became the elements of a “comprehensive system” of education that its leaders hoped would reconcile urban-industrialization—a rapid and rabid process—with those values most endangered by it—family, church, and community.  “Private power and public purpose, industrial productivity and godliness, grass roots support generated by agents of New York millionaires, talk of universal education and democratic purpose in a caste society— these seem contradictory if not hypocritical in retrospect,” as David Tyack and Elizabeth Hansot have written. “But in the special millennialism of the day in the South, the [educational] awakening brought to whites a dream of Progress that combined a Protestant social evangelism with the promise of modern efficiency, a union of missionaries and social engineers.” How this “dream of Progress”—a social philosophy rooted in and loyal to an idealized Southern past, peddled by godly mercantilists in both the North and the South (“a union of missionaries and social engineers”), and marching under the banner of science and reason—how this dream found ultimate expression in the annals of American education is the subject of the book. The question it poses—How did the South educate the educators?—suggests a different pattern of events than the familiar one of Radical Reconstruction, Republican apostasy, and liberal disillusionment, often couched in the literature as the “abandonment” not only of Reconstruction but of the freed people as a whole, abandoned to allegedly backward-looking modes of oppression and social control.


The South’s traditional rural character; its “special millennialism” combining a religious heritage in revealed Christology with a scientific one in Baconian doxology; its paternalistic system of race relations inherited from slavery; even its “culture of honor”; these are just a few of the distinctive values and mores that allegedly set the South apart from the rest of the nation during what was a critical period in its urban-industrial development—from the end of Reconstruction and the return of home rule, to the rise of a new “Redeemer South,” to American entry into World War I. This same period saw not coincidentally the rise of the so-called New Education, a movement originating among pro-Southern progressives in the North, principal among them Charles W. Eliot and Abraham Flexner, members both of them of the GEB. The New Education became a vehicle for the introduction and ultimately for the acceptance of Southern values as dominant and peculiarly American values. Supported by interlocking philanthropic forces, North and South, what united the New Education and its allies was a desire not only to improve public education in the South, but in the process to articulate a more generalized vision of education itself, one that would hold an equal appeal to northern and southern elites alike.


At the turn of the 20th century, black lives mattered in the worst sense of the term, as sociological fodder for a racialized vision of public education (what I call “race education for all”) aided and abetted by philanthropists and their friends in progressive education, promoting vocational, non-college-bound schooling for the children of recent immigrants, for blacks, and for most working class whites— all lumped together now as so-called “dependent peoples”—and a college education for the respectable middle-class. Speaking in 1901 at a convention of the Southern Industrial Association, Robert C. Ogden, a wealthy businessman from Philadelphia who served as a trustee of Hampton and later Tuskegee Institute, agricultural and industrial training institutes for southern blacks originating in the work of one Samuel Chapman Armstrong, stated: “The breadth of view which General Armstrong inspired has brought a large company of people through the influence of negro education to the consideration of white education, and thus to see the Southern educational question as a unit, with the negro as a great incident, but nevertheless incidental to the larger question.” And the larger question? A popular education in which “Commerce and Education are twins,” said Ogden, the foreign population of the North and the illiterate white and Negro people of the South being “the material upon which this educational work must be done.” In this regard, as he reminded his audience, “The questions of the South are historic and organic that carry with them national responsibility.” Modern educators wanting to put into historical context relations of class, race, and ethnicity as they persist in today’s schools will find much here to inform them, putting to rest, for example, false distinctions in the history of school reform between a liberal-progressive North and a conservative and reactionary South. So completely did the themes of Southern life and culture enter into the educational plans of Northern elites that not only do we need to question the whole trope of “northernization,” but more drastically the rationalist, liberal humanitarian roots of progressivism itself. . . .The southern work of the General Education Board (GEB), many of whose officers were transplanted, loyal sons of the South, shows that philanthropy—the most popular form of northern aid to the South (and in education certainly the largest)—was motivated less by eleemosynary ideals than by a clear conception of the value of the southern experience to national concerns, foremost among them the need for a more efficient and effective system of public education. . . .


It was not simply that North and South developed a “culture of conciliation,” as one historian has put it, in the aftermath of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Conciliation has an air of submissiveness that fails to capture the aggressive way in which northern business and educational leaders, in the cause of the nation’s social and economic development, studied, monitored, and ultimately co-opted characteristic elements of traditional southern culture. These include a “spiritualizing” rural culture that even as it was fading in the South became a template for the new agricultural education in the North; an industrial culture designed to uplift poor whites no less than poor blacks and that took its lead from the Christian ethic of work as redemption, not the Republican one of free labor; a tried and tested paternalistic system of race and ethnic relations; and a religious culture that opposed an evangel of sinfulness and spiritual rebirth to the Christian secularism and Godless materialism of the North. The apotheosis of southern folkways took place at a time when American industry was growing at an accelerating pace, producing not only vast new sources of wealth but also new forms of organization and workplace management—the corporation, mass production, scientific management. Progress was widening the gap between rich and poor, spawning crowded and congested cities, and creating the conditions for civil conflict and unrest while pitting Labor against Capital in a war of all against all. Securing the acquiescence of northern workers in the conditions of their own alienation would require a return to, a re-spiritualization of cultural traditions that stressed self-help not social activism, faith not victimhood, home and hearth not the picket-line or the street. Powerful foundations supported this view, the General Education Board alone with some $324 million to shore up public education, support agricultural extension, and “harness the powerful motives of religion to the educational chariot.” The propertied white South may have lost its battle to save slavery but with its industrial allies in the North—united now around a “taxpayers’ viewpoint”—was winning its war to save the soul of America, putting the country back on a path of growth and development that, eschewed of the politics of the old, would be steady, secure, and relatively free of the burdens of the present. . . .


Not simply during the period under examination but today as well, the South is less a place defined by strict geographical boundaries—much less by the Mason-Dixie line once demarcating slave states from non-slave states—than an idea, a deep-seated one, combining elements of racial and ethnic separatism, the elevation of a mythic rural order, the countryside as a foil for urban squalor and discontent, and Godliness, the “one truth” of God finding its earthly equivalent in science married to nature study, the solution to all human ills. In its symbolic guise the South may not be so “peculiar” after all, only a “local phase,” in the words of W.E.B DuBois, of a much larger global phenomenon—“the subordination of people of color to the western world.” But it is more than that still. What the book attempts to document, the work of progressives at the GEB to transpose traditional Southern values and institutions to a national reform movement in education, finds its modern equivalent, a global one, in efforts (no less putatively “progressive”) to bring to an end the traditional North-South divide between developed and developing countries, the former looking to the latter—in a familiar cant—to tackle shared vulnerabilities, build resilience, and boost development. The North-South Centre of the Council of Europe in its call for greater “North-South interdependence and solidarity” pointed in 1988 to an interdependence made especially salient not only by mass migration, but with it by new physical proximities of social and economic inequality. Although for very different reasons, new forces of anti-globalization in the North begin ironically to echo those of the so-called Global South. What traditionally was a protest by the vast majority of underdeveloped countries in the Global South against the economic and political dominance of the Global North—exemplified, for example, in its veto power on the United Nations Security Council—has been turned on its head, a protest now, a populist one, against the infiltration, real and imaginary, of millions of the former into the precincts of the latter, the North experiencing its own fears of economic underdevelopment. A persistent racism—and its flipside, ethnocentricism—in all areas of the world only exacerbates the problem, a problem less of difference any more than of sameness, globalization with a vengeance. What role the American South, symbolic or otherwise, plays in this new state-of-affairs, or not, is the question before us. . . . .


If it makes sense to speak of the incorporation of the American South into a Global South, one in transition to a Global North—the differences between the two elided by common challenges to social and economic development, pro-globalization elites in both regions of the world united against a “left-behind hinterland” in both regions—Rockefeller’s “comprehensive system,” defined here as an amalgamation of science, southernness, and vocationalism, may be just what the world has ordered, a palliative (if not a cure) for the dislocations of incipient backwardness, while an encouragement to interdependent forces of change and persistence. That so many progressive educators on both sides of the fictional North/South divide, from then until now, have helped to bring into effect and justify (on progressive grounds) such a system is less an indictment of any one region than of liberal humanitarianism itself, at least in its corporate-industrial mold.

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