The American Civil War & Schooling

Regular reader Richard A commented on the last post:

Ever look into the effects of the Civil War on American schooling? It has struck me that pre-Civil War, the stereotypical schoolteacher was male – Ichabod Crane, say – whereas after the war the teachers tended to be predominantly female – see any photograph of a one-room classroom you’ve ever posted on this site. Get upwards of million adult males killed or disabled and some jobs start going to women. Obviously, this would be predominantly American phenomenon.

Of course the Civil War had to have had a huge effect on schooling, as it had a huge and persisting effect on America. In the stuff I’m reading now, the Civil War gets glossed over, relatively speaking. Thinking back, here are a few of the ways the Civil War affected education:

Mr. A’s example above makes sense and seems inevitable, but I don’t recall it being specifically addressed in regards to teachers. But my reading so far is woefully inadequate to say one way or the other. What I can say is that while we hear of male teachers a lot in regard to more urban or at least more settled areas, the frontier schools very much tended to have women teachers both before and after the war. As the frontier became more settled and eventually vanished, more and more men are found teaching. One-Room Schools of the Middle West: An Illustrated History discusses this phenomenon. It doesn’t appear that teaching became predominantly the work of women that it is today until long after consolidated schools had completely replaced one room schools.

In the parish schools, women teachers were always predominant, largely because religious sisters were the backbone of the system.

The texts do mention that the compulsory state schooling movement took off after the war. The Reconstruction period was a boon to the Prussian schooling crowd, who sent their apostles into the South to, you know, fix them. Unlike the North, which was nearly 100% literate apart from very recent immigrants, the South did much more closely resemble the world as the NEA imagines at that period, with a crying need for their messianic magic. There really were huge numbers of illiterate people, virtually all the former slaves and a significant portion of the impoverished rural whites. And, after Grant got through with it and under Northern occupation, the South wasn’t in any position to come up with a home-grown solution, even if they had been so inclined.

So one effect of the Civil War on education is that the South went (very broadly speaking) from ignoring or rejecting the Prussian school movement as Yankee nonsense to having it thrust upon them. What I don’t know yet is exactly what happened with the end of Reconstruction. How much were the Prussian schools simply accepted and incorporated? Were the educational carpetbaggers chased out of town? Stay tuned.

Reconstruction - The Civil War (U.S. National Park Service)

Finally, at the college level, I’d have to look up the numbers, but it seems clear the ranks of elite students were devastated. While the brahmins at Harvard generally opposed going to war and thought (correctly, IMHO) that the abolitionists were lunatics who’d willingly, almost eagerly, destroy the country and get a lot of people killed (also largely true) to end slavery, the students disproportionately ran off to fight, and disproportionately died. The most famous, perhaps, was Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who was wounded three times and saw several of his friends die at his side.

That’s got to change a man, and, by extension, change the nature of the institutions those men people. In the case of Holmes, those would be Harvard and the Supreme Court. The abolitionists got the bloodbath they yearned for (“loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword”; “I have read His fiery gospel writ in rows of burnished steel!”; “let us die to make them free” – these are not measured sentiments), thus understandably discrediting religious fervor in the eyes of many.

So I think I can tentatively assert that the Civil War signalled are hard shift toward secularism in colleges, which then filtered down to lower levels of education over the rest of the 19th century. Certainly, the idea, widely espoused in the Church and loudly proclaimed by both Catholic, e.g., Orestes Brownson, and Protestant thinkers, that education is by its nature religious, and that it a fantasy and mistake to think you could have even have secular education, died with the antebellum generations.

Brownson, who died a few years after the Civil War:

We value education, and even universal education- which overlooks no class or child, however rich or however poor, however honored or however despised – as highly as any of our countrymen do or can; but we value no education that is divorced from religion and religious culture. Religion is the supreme law, the one thing to be lived for; and all in life, individual or social, civil or political, should be subordinated to it, and esteemed only as a means to the eternal end for which man was created and exists … We hold that education, either of the intellect or of the heart, or of both combined, divorced from faith and religious discipline, is dangerous alike to the individual and to society. All education should be religious and intended to train the child for a religious end; not for this life only, but for eternal life; for this life is nothing if severed from that which is to come. …

By 1897, Archbishop John Ireland in the footnotes to his commentary on his 1890 address to the NEA, quotes in support of his position:

Absolutely and universally speaking, there is no repugnance in learning the first elements and the higher branches of the arts and the natural sciences in public schools controlled by the state, whose office is to provide and protect everything: by which its citizens are formed to moral goodness.”

Cardinal Satolli : “Propositions for the Settling of the School Question.”, from a footnote in Archbishop Ireland’s book, The Church and Modern Society (1897)

“The State has its degree of authority over the secular education of its citizens, but the Church has exclusive authority over the religious education of her children.”

Rev. W. H. Hill, S. J., ” Ethics,” 7th ed., p. 261., ibid

Ireland begins his 1890 address by stating:

I am a friend and an advocate of the state school. In the circumstances of the present time I uphold the parish school. I sincerely wish that the need for it did not exist. I would have all schools for the children of the people to be state schools.

He then reaffirms the Church’s role in religious education, and makes several proposals for ways in which the state can provide all education in everything other than religion. It is merely assumed by Ireland and the prelates he quotes here that secular education freed from religious considerations is not only possible by desirable. The state should provide, and is the only entity that can provide, universal secular education, and that this bifurcation of education into secular and religious components is a good thing.

I doubt this shift is solely the effect of the war, but the turn away from religious ‘fanaticism’ certainly would support it.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

One thought on “The American Civil War & Schooling”

  1. Well, I guess I do know that my father, who went eight years to a one-room schoolhouse in a small farming community in Pennsylvania, had a male teacher. Probably very good with book-learning, but a bit too citified. The only story I recall from my dad is that he corrected some boy who mentioned that a steer is a castrated bull, explaining that it was some breed of cattle, like longhorns (or something). All the farm boys (and girls), even the six-year-olds, knew that was bull, and that the teacher was an ass. I think some of the parents set him straight, as he wasn’t going to command much respect otherwise.

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