Exploring the Southern Education Tradition: Kentucky

Written by Kerry Ellard on February 3, 2022

In an earlier piece, I argued that there were two educational traditions in America, and focused on the “northern” or “Yankee” one.

The history of education in Kentucky provides a good illustration of what the “southern” tradition looked like, even though Kentucky, being on the frontier, ultimately developed a North-South fusionist approach, as did much of the west before the Civil War.

Education on the Frontier

The defining feature of a public education system is taxpayer and/or state funding (“permanent funding")—this financial security allows for the creation of a stable, relatively standardized system, and lets it siphon authority from the government.[1] This is why, before the 20th century, public education was often referred to as “national” or “government” education in Europe, and “popular” or “universal” education in most of America, where a system of tax-payer funded schooling was not yet plausible (with the exception of post-1840 Massachusetts). [2]

Unlike the northwestern territories that bordered it, the state of Kentucky lacked provisions for permanently funding any system of education. A primary reason for this was that, in regions where slavery was practiced, “an inherent conflict developed between localism and the needs of the state.” These communities tended to revolve around the needs of a small group of wealthy, powerful landholders, who had little reason to invest in a democratic system of general education. Private or very exclusive and specialized arrangements (such as local academies and universities) were sufficient for educating their own sons: “the prevailing belief of the elites was that the commonwealth needed trained ministers, businessmen, lawyers, and other public servants and not an educated general population.”[3]

So, when it was admitted to the Union in 1792, the border state of Kentucky's only option was some version of this “Virginia style of education,” common to the southern slaveholding states, rather than the "New England pattern” of near-universal primary education. While “the prevailing slavocracy set the tone for Kentucky society and dominated the state government until the end of the Civil War,” Kentucky elites were known to value education more than most slaveholding states, especially in cities like Lexington and Louisville.[4]

Indeed, when these elites, Kentucky’s first settlers, began earnestly addressing education needs at the turn of the nineteenth century, the result was a modified and privately funded importation of the Massachusetts tradition. This took the form of frontier “academies,” which were English-language classical grammar schools.[5]

The Academies

“In 1785 the first classes of Transylvania Seminary, taught by Rev. James Mitchell, were held near Danville in a cabin owned by Rev. David Rice, one of the founders of Presbyterianism on the frontier. Tuition could be paid in Spanish gold, the preferred currency of the frontier, or in produce or other commodities. A year later the school moved to Lexington and a year after that met in the home of Rev. James Moore, a Lexington Episcopalian rector. In 1799 the school combined with Kentucky Academy, a competing Presbyterian school, to form Transylvania University, which began then to offer college-level courses. The eastern seaboard conflict between sectarianism and the newer thoughts of Enlightenment secularism that had been developing for more than a century was transmitted to the Kentucky frontier and played out in the forming of Transylvania.'”[6]

Before the founding of public schools, the academies “filled an enormous educational gap in the developing western democracy.” However, as indicated above, Kentucky was a slave state with an oligarchical social structure at this time, so these academies generally catered to the children of the upper classes, male and female, and focused less on democratic-republican citizenship.[7]

At least in part because of this social context, female education was encouraged in Kentucky more than in most states at the time, and female academies were often called “seminaries.”[8] The academies were organized by towns and a diverse array of individuals; groups, religious and secular.[9] As scholar William E. Ellis put it,

“Finding a competent teacher proved a daunting task, because there were no teacher-training programs, nor certification, nor standards of compensation in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. School organizers had to take whomever they could find. Sometimes itinerant teachers from New England wandered their way. Many teachers were ministers, lawyers, surveyors, or other professionals looking to supplement their incomes.”[10]

The early and mid-1800’s shift towards more modern and public education systems was mostly confined to the northeast,[11] these academies and seminaries dominated early childhood education in Kentucky until the time of the Civil War.[12] Where common schools existed during this period, they generally did not go past fourth grade, at which point “a student was assumed to have rudimentary knowledge, enough of the ‘three R's’ to "read a newspaper and the Bible, write a simple sentence of social correspondence or business, and 'cipher through the rule of three' (add and subtract)."[13]

The Mentelles

One teacher who “wandered” to Kentucky was Victorie Charlotte LeClere Mentelle, who settled in the city of Lexington with her husband, Augustus Waldemare Mentelle. “French gentlefolk of culture and high education,” both had been born in Paris to intellectually impressive families. “Monsieur Mentelle,” as he was known in Lexington, was the son of a professor in the National and Royal Academy and had been a historiographer to the king.[14] Due to revolution-related unrest and personal issues, the newly married couple left for America in the final years of the eighteenth century, and never returned to France.[15]

By 1805, they had settled on school-teaching as their primary means of support. At the time, Lexington elites had pronounced aristocratic pretensions and placed more value on education and culture than any other place in the region.[16] The Mentelles established a boarding school for teenage girls that focused on the French language and dancing.[17] It was a finishing school in some ways equivalent to the male-only local universities, meant for those girls who had already completed the equivalent of an elementary and even secondary education at an academy.[18]

“On winter evenings Monsieur Mentelle would take down his violin and Madame who ‘spared no pains with the graces and manners of young Ladies submitted to her care,’ instructed the pupils "in the latest and most fashionable Cotillions, Round & Hop Waltzes, Hornpipes, Galopades, Mohawks, Spanish, Scottish, Polish, Tyrolienne dances and the Beautiful Circassian Circle."[19]

By the 1830s, Madame Mentelle’s school, as it was known, had relocated to a building across from the house of Henry Clay, and advertised itself as a place for Lexington’s girls to receive "a truly useful & 'Solid' English Education in all its branches."[20]

Until the death of Madame Mentelle in 1860, the school was a Lexington institution, and the Mentelles were friendly with local elites to the point that their children intermarried with the Clay family.[21]

Changes in the South

The year 1860, however, was precisely when everything began to change. Kentucky, especially Lexington, had always followed a somewhat contradictory value system, and its approach to education followed a “frustrating cycle of ‘reform followed by regression.’”[22] The Civil War only worsened this, as battles over segregation, federal/”Yankee” influence, and partisanship interfered with the willingness to plan or fund a public education system.[23]

Interestingly, this is why progressive education was initially associated with the southern and southwestern/“border state” tradition of education. [24] In an earlier piece, I remarked that there was a fundamental conflict between progressive ideologies and the northern education tradition. This led to a counterintuitive dynamic: progressive education, in its various strains, was initially more popular in the American South, which had a less coherent and established education tradition or infrastructure, and therefore was more fertile ground for all kinds of experiments.[25]

I will discuss this topic in more detail in “The Intellectual Environment of John Dewey, Part IX: Pragmatism and Predecessors.”

Further Reading:

Martha Stephenson, “History of Education in Kentucky,” Register of Kentucky State Historical Society 15, no. 44 (1917): 67–79, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23368539.

William E. Ellis, A History of Education in Kentucky (United States: University Press of Kentucky, 2011.)

Randolph Paul Runyan, The Mentelles: Mary Todd Lincoln, Henry Clay, and the Immigrant Family Who Educated Antebellum Kentucky (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2018.)

1. See, for example, William E. Ellis, A History of Education in Kentucky (United States: University Press of Kentucky, 2011.)

2. “Popular” or “universal” referred to making education generally accessible, by a variety of means that did not necessarily involve the government or a centralized long-term plan.

3. See ibid.

4. See, for example, ibid. and Stephen Berry, House of Abraham: Lincoln and the Todds, a Family Divided by War (Mariner Books, 2009).

5. See, for example, Ellis, A History of Education in Kentucky.

6. Ibid. Emphases added.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid. Emphases added.

11. America’s first school of education, or “normal school,” was founded in Lexington, Massachusetts, in 1839, around the same time Horace Mann began his centralizing and standardizing reforms in the state, culminating in a compulsory public school mode. See, for example, Marc Filippino, “Teacher education began in Lexington Normal School,” Wicked Local, July 21, 2013, https://www.wickedlocal.com/story/lexington-minuteman/2013/07/21/teacher-education-began-in-lexington/38990921007/ (“The normal school became a model that would eventually spread across the country. From creating standard curriculum to creating model classrooms where future teachers and administrators would play out potential scenarios, the Lexington Normal School essentially became the birthplace of American pedagogy.”)

12. Ellis, A History of Education in Kentucky. See also Blair M. Smith, Review of Ellis, William E., A History of Education in Kentucky, H-Kentucky, H-Net Reviews, November 2015, http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=45065 (“In an era of national education growth, he notes, Kentucky did not have a general school system until the late 1830s, while a public school system was included in the 1850 constitution. It is here where Ellis first broaches a continuing theme in this work, the disruption of education by party politics. For example, Ellis states that the 1838 provision for a general school system would have its fund reduced before the law was even enacted. The early case for education is not all pessimistic, however; Ellis is keen to show that the state became a leader in specialist schools for the deaf and blind, with Kentucky organizing the “first state-supported school for the deaf in the nation.”)

13. Ellis, A History of Education in Kentucky.

14. See William H. Townsend, Lincoln and the Bluegrass: Slavery and Civil War in Kentucky (Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1955.)

15. See Randolph Paul Runyan, “The Elite Parisian Family That Educated Antebellum Kentucky,” What It Means to Be American: A National Conversation Hosted by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and Arizona State University, April 26, 2018. “Mentelle left France because of the Revolution, but his was a reluctant departure. In late 1789, before the Terror, his father worried his son might be conscripted and so bought his passage to America. He also thought that Waldemar, who showed no interest in pursuing a profession, had no prospects for making a living in France. In the New World, land was cheap and abundant and Waldemar could take up farming, his father decided.”); Randolph Paul Runyan, The Mentelles: Mary Todd Lincoln, Henry Clay, and the Immigrant Family Who Educated Antebellum Kentucky (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2018.)

16. See, for example, Berry, House of Abraham.

17. See Townsend, Lincoln and the Bluegrass. Not all of the students boarded, and many of those who did were locals. Mary Todd, who later married Abraham Lincoln, boarded there five days a week, although her family lived nearby. This is attributed to the fact that her family was very large and tempestuous, and that the older children born to her father’s second wife had difficulties with their stepmother. Mary was about six years old when her mother, Robert S. Todd’s first wife, died in childbirth. The many Todd children were educated by a combination of local academies and private tutors; some of Todd’s sons were university-educated, like himself. See Wikipedia contributors, "Robert Smith Todd," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Robert_Smith_Todd&oldid=1045272494 (accessed January 19, 2022) (“When only fourteen years old, Todd began attending Transylvania College in Lexington, graduating four years later when he was eighteen”).

18. See Wikipedia contributors, "Robert Smith Todd”; Berry, House of Abraham; Townsend, Lincoln and the Bluegrass; Mary Lutz, "Mary Todd Lincoln, 1818-1861," Masters Theses, 4702, Eastern Illinois University,1955, https://thekeep.eiu.edu/theses/4702 (“It was a finishing school where they taught, along with other social graces, letter writing and conversation.”) See also Mary Clemmer Ames, Ten Years in Washington: Life and Scenes in the National Capital, as a Woman Sees Them (United States: Worthington & Company, 1874) (“[Mary Todd Lincoln] was well-born, gently reared, and her education above the average standard given to girls in her youth. She is a fair mistress of the French language, and in English can write a more graceful letter than one educated woman in fifty.”); Smith, Review of A History of Education in Kentucky; Ellis, A History of Education in Kentucky (“Some academies were organized to educate young ladies in the finishing-school tradition. For example, in 1798 a French émigré couple, who had escaped the ravages of the French Revolution, founded Mentelle's for Young Ladies, a female academy in Lexington. At the age of fourteen, Mary Todd, who later married Abraham Lincoln, went there to be educated. Madame Victorie Charlotte LeClerc Mentelle and her husband Augustus Waldemar Mentelle lent a Continental air to Lexington with their school on Richmond Road across from Henry Clay's Ashland estate. The school, which lasted until the middle of the nineteenth century, taught etiquette, literature, dancing, and, of course, French…”)

19. Townsend, Lincoln and the Bluegrass; Runyan, “The Elite Parisian Family That Educated Antebellum Kentucky”(“Lexington’s elite thought having the Mentelles in their midst gave them a touch of class. The French couple was invited to mingle with the rich and prominent without being expected to return the favor, which they did not have the money to do. Charlotte saw that they were too poor to incite envy yet were perceived as better educated than their hosts, eliciting from the latter ‘a bit of the esteem that they normally only have for gold.’ …The Mentelles became Americans on their own terms, unrepentantly French to the end. Now they are memorialized as iconic Kentuckians; Lexington has a street and a new historical marker to remember them by.”)

20. Townsend, Lincoln and the Bluegrass.

21. Paul Runyan, The Mentelles;

22. Detmering, Robert (2011) "Book Review: A History of Education in Kentucky," The Southeastern Librarian: Vol. 59, Iss. 3, Article 9, https://digitalcommons.kennesaw.edu/seln/vol59/iss3/9. See also Berry, House of Abraham, and Runyan, “The Elite Parisian Family That Educated Antebellum Kentucky” (Charlotte…[wrote] that although the American form of government ‘can be taken as a model, this Constitution that speaks only of liberty; these men who seem to think nobly—if you compare all that with slavery and their tyranny over the blacks,’ it is ‘ridiculous and absurd.’ She continued that if you should happen to mention this inconsistency to the people here, ‘they become disturbed, and you would think you were listening to madmen who believe they are speaking rationally.’”)

23. See Ellis, A History of Education in Kentucky; Smith, Review of A History of Education in Kentucky (“…Ellis examines at length the various social and economic challenges that education faced in Kentucky up to 1900. This is an interesting section of his narrative, as he discusses the impact that the abolition of slavery had on education in the state, and notes that there were significant efforts to codify African American education, despite opposition to the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Despite a general argument that the Civil War made Kentucky more southern, Ellis points to the efforts of John G. Fee in founding an integrated school in Berea County as proof that biracial education was possible. He also shows that there were efforts to found an African American college in the state and that women were admitted to some institutions by the 1880s. However, while he addresses issues of teacher training and the poor-quality of school houses, Ellis also stresses that there were signs of educational progress up to 1900, at least for a public education system. Higher education is described as “limping along,” thanks to a few dedicated individuals, as they competed over a small pool of students. Ellis portrays both elementary/secondary and higher education in this period as suffering from major funding issues, worse than in other states. A factor in these financial issues appears to be the role of the officials elected to oversee education. Ellis is clear in his assessment that Republican politicians of the era were more progressive, and that it was Democratic cronyism that was impeding the overhauls needed to address major educational concerns…the opening decades of the twentieth century see great efforts at (and challenges to) education reform in the state. A 1908 law designed to provide standardized criteria for high schools faced opposition when it was implemented, while teacher training, or rather lack of, was a constant concern…the efforts at reform and improvement in line with national trends always appear dependent on a few dedicated individuals, rather than a coherent plan of action, as funding issues limited the scope of improvements for schools and universities. For Ellis, ‘as often occurs in Kentucky, a good idea gets bound up in politics.’”) Internal citations omitted.

24. See Ellis, A History of Education in Kentucky. (“Louisville had the best school system in the state by the beginning of the Civil War…One of the most interesting early educational experiments in Kentucky involved an Austrian schoolmaster, Joseph Neff, who was a disciple of the Swiss innovator Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi…Pestalozzi's ideas about elementary and vocational education were far ahead of the time, particularly for an educational backwater like Kentucky. Neff established a boys' school outside Philadelphia in 1809 that received national publicity. Apparently with the usual complement of books and other educational aids, Neff used mental exercises and games to challenge his students. Dr. Joseph Buchanan, a liberal-minded physician from Lexington who dabbled in inventions, including the steam engine, and whom Niels Henry Sonne called "unquestionably Kentucky's greatest intellectual of the period," visited Neff's school in 1812. In 1813 Buchanan advertised the opening of a Pestalozzian school in Lexington, which would cater primarily to boys six to ten years of age. Buchanan expected the students to complete their education there "or until they have arrived at the age of manhood." He said he would exclude all religious instruction of any form. As a sign of the times, academies in Versailles and Paris also offered no religious studies. However, within two years the school failed, owing in part to the strong censure of local Presbyterian clergy…But the Pestalozzian experiment was not yet over in Kentucky. Louisville physician William C. Galt, whose two sons had studied with Neff in Pennsylvania, lured the Austrian American to Louisville. Opening in 1815, the Louisville school had a disappointing enrollment, and Neff's wife Eloise did not feel comfortable in what she called the "backwoods" after living in cosmopolitan Philadelphia. Neff also got caught up in another idea, founding a *farming school" supported by Shelby County farmer Thomas Buckner. Neff theorized that young boys would flock to him to learn modern agricultural methods and believed he was the person to teach them. After Neff purchased a farm from Buckner, the grand idea went nowhere fast; Neff ended up cultivating the farm to eke out a living for his family. He finally escaped to Robert Owen's utopian experiment in New Harmony, Indiana, where his theories about education found a willing audience. His students there also took instruction in an industrial school that was much like a trade school. Considered one of the true pioneers in early-nineteenth-century education, unfortunately, Neff found no success in Kentucky.”) Emphases added.

25. See, for example, R. E. Chennault, “Pragmatism and progressivism in the educational thought and practices of Booker T. Washington,” Philosophical Studies in Education 44, 121-131, 2013, https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1015729.pdf (“[Booker T.] Washington’s belief in ‘correlating’ industrial with academic instruction seems a manifestation of his adaptation of Pestalozzi’s philosophy and Fröebel’s ‘object studies.’ Washington’s apparent knowledge of the work of Pestalozzi and Fröebel—and his attempt to graft their thinking onto the context of the Negro in the South—helps situate him in the progressive education tradition.”) Emphases added. Chennault points to what he calls a “useful, if vague, description of progressivism,” which is “the emergence in the arena of national politics of all of the impulses to reform which had hitherto expressed themselves ‘socially’ and ‘locally.’”Such an approach would necessarily have intersected with regional differences and conflicts. See also William E. Ellis, A History of Education in Kentucky (United States: University Press of Kentucky, 2011.)

Kerry Ellard

Kerry Ellard earned a B.S. in Communication and a B.A. in Political Science from Boston University, and a J.D. from Boston College Law School. During school and after graduation, she worked in law, education, and government. Most recently, she has worked as a tutor, independent historian, and sociological analyst. Kerry lives in Boston, where she enjoys playing with her dog and attending concerts.