“The Tools of Our Time Belong to Those Who Can Handle Them”: Education in Modern America Part I: The Rise of Progressive Education in the South

Written by Kerry Ellard on February 7, 2022

Part I: The Rise of Progressive Education in the South

In the 1850s, Ralph Waldo Emerson published a book about England, in which he declared that its “patrician class” had been overthrown by the socioeconomic revolution sweeping the western world. In a chapter titled “Aristocracy,” he characterized the emerging era as follows.

“The great powers of industrial art have no exclusion of name or blood. The tools of our time, namely, steam, ships, printing, money, and popular education, belong to those who can handle them: and their effect has been that advantages once confined to men of family are now open to the whole middle class.”[1]

As this quote indicates, Emerson saw “popular education” as one of the defining tools of the modern world, which also featured a more democratic, or at least less class-based, form of social organization. This would be an era of greater competition and, as a logical consequence, an era in which ability and reward/achievement were more closely linked. Now that these tools could find their way into the right hands, the thinking went, their full potential would soon be unleashed.[2]

Emerson’s remarks evoke a somewhat meritocratic and utilitarian notion of popular education—the best teachers or learners would compete among themselves to make use of knowledge, just as they now did with money, ideas, and technology.[3] In the context of his general philosophy and other remarks in the chapter, however, he probably had a much more well-rounded, classical, and character-focused vision in mind.[4]

Emerson was talking about England, but this observation had implications for America, where in just a few years, the Civil War would greatly accelerate the process of modernization. Where Emerson lived, in the New England region, widely accessible popular education had long ago been normalized. By the second quarter of the nineteenth century, American popular education, where it existed, had escaped the sole custody of local churchmen: by the time Emerson was writing, the tools of popular education had become available to almost all Americans who wanted to give “handling” them a try.[5] Experimental schools and primers of various kinds had popped up all over the country. Horace Mann, for example, proving himself adept at handling such tools, had already implemented a compulsory and integrated taxpayer-funded public school system in Massachusetts.

In the beginning, this didn’t look anything like what one might imagine from Emerson’s words. Popular education did not become fancier and “shiner” once unleashed. In 1838, a young Abraham Lincoln urged that “reverence for the laws be breathed by every American mother,” “let it be taught in schools,” and “let it be written in primers, spelling books and in Almanacs.”[6]This was a simple, ad hoc vision of education. Even as late as 1871, future president James A. Garfield defined an ideal college as “Mark Hopkins and a student together in a log cabin.” Hopkins had taught Garfield, himself a former professor known for his intellectual abilities, when he was a student at Williams College.[7]

Part of the reason for the lack of bells and whistles was the dominant Yankee educational tradition. This tradition was heavily influenced by the classical republican model, which valued political action and debate but was fairly hostile to commerce and technology developments. Both were seen as having the potential to disrupt the fundamental moral, social, and political orders of the time, a belief validated by the ongoing industrial revolution.[8]

This changed after the Civil War, when the south began to develop its own public education system, in many cases because it was forced to by the federal government.[9] During the Reconstruction Era, the main influence on southern education was the Yankee tradition, which was inextricable from the political and moral beliefs of Yankee culture.[10] For obvious reasons, many white southerners were reluctant to participate, and such efforts disproportionately focused on black Americans, many of whom had either been born into slavery or to parents who had been.[11]

But before long, more progressive educators had demonstrated proficiency with the tools of American popular education than ever before. The lack of an entrenched and coherent educational tradition in the south, and southerners’ hostility to the Yankee tradition, was a boon to those interested in experimenting with various forms of progressive education.[12] In some cases, these experiments retained the basic form of a classical republican education, but mixed it with progressivism rather than the Yankee’s moralistic literary culture.[13] This was something some founders, especially southern ones, had favored in the previous century, and which was available to white southern elites in some areas.[14] Such an approach emphasized patriotism, citizenship, and self-sufficiency, but was more open to both career-oriented and technical training.[15] Under this view, “education was understood to be key to both economic and political independence,” which, in concert with the tensions of the post-war era, served to complicate the question of civic and moral education more than was initially apparent.[16] Many post-war southerners, understandably seeing their immediate interests better served by an education that prioritized economic independence, stability, finding ways to meet practical needs, and technical training over trying to achieve political and moral unity through community debate, broke with most traditions and began moving swiftly from “reverential to liberationist” as Reconstruction came to end.[17] But as the next few decades would show, economic liberation did not necessarily correspond with political and social liberation in post-Reconstruction America.[18]

In Part II, I will discuss Booker T. Washington’s Reconstruction-era southern educational experience, his use of the “project method,” and certain strains of southern progressivism prominent during the “Jim Crow” era.

1. Ralph Waldo Emerson, English Traits (Boston: Phillips, Sampson, and Co., 1856). Just prior to this paragraph, Emerson wrote the following: “‘In the university, noblemen are exempted from the public exercises for the degree, &c., by which they attain a degree called honorary. At the same time, the fees they have to pay for matriculation, and on all other occasions, are much higher.’ Fuller records ‘the observation of foreigners, that Englishmen, by making their children gentlemen, before they are men, cause they are so seldom wise men.’ This cockering justifies Dr. Johnson’s bitter apology for primogeniture, ‘that it makes but one fool in a family.’” (Emphases added, except for the word “honorary,” which is italicized in the original text). English Traits is generally understood as a declaration that the British Empire was in decline and that the near future belonged to America, which had more untapped resources and adaptability.

2. See Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Wealth,” The Conduct of Life, 1860, via Emerson Central, https://emersoncentral.com/texts/the-conduct-of-life/wealth/. (Wealth is in applications of mind to nature; and the art of getting rich consists not in industry, much less in saving, but in a better order, in timeliness, in being at the right spot. One man has stronger arms, or longer legs; another sees by the course of streams, and growth of markets, where land will be wanted, makes a clearing to the river, goes to sleep, wakes up rich. Steam is no stronger now, than it was a hundred years ago; but is put to better use...Wealth begins with…articles of necessity. And here we must recite the iron law which Nature thunders in these northern climates. First, she requires that each man should feed himself. If, happily, his fathers have left him no inheritance, he must go to work, and by making his wants less, or his gains more, he must draw himself out of that state of pain and insult in which she forces the beggar to lie. She gives him no rest until this is done: she starves, taunts, and torments him, takes away warmth, laughter, sleep, friends, and daylight, until he has fought his way to his own loaf. Then, less peremptorily, but still with sting enough, she urges him to the acquisition of such things as belong to him. Every warehouse and shop-window, every fruit-tree, every thought of every hour, opens a new want to him, which it concerns his power and dignity to gratify. It is of no use to argue the wants down: the philosophers have laid the greatness of man in making his wants few; but will a man content himself with a hut and a handful of dried peas? He is born to be rich. He is thoroughly related; and is tempted out by his appetites and fancies to the conquest of this and that piece of nature, until he finds his well-being in the use of his planet, and of more planets than his own. Wealth requires, besides the crust of bread and the roof, — the freedom of the city, the freedom of the earth, travelling, machinery, the benefits of science, music, and fine arts, the best culture, and the best company.”) (Emphases added.) From this, we can see that Emerson’s point was not so much about raw talent or effort as it was about expanding and diversifying the pool of competitors, allowing more people a chance of seizing the right opportunity for their specific talents and resources. (But see note 3, below, for a remark more along those lines.) Additionally, he defined wealth as something more than financial success and material acquisition.

3. It is common for Emerson’s remarks to be misinterpreted in an excessively narrow, materialistic fashion. See note 2, above, and Olga Thierbach-McLean, “From Emerson to Trump: Capitalism, Meritocracy, and the Virtue of Money,” Amerikastudien / American Studies 63, no. 1, 2018, 29–43, http://www.jstor.org/stable/45340531 (“Emerson explicitly included the economic dimension in his reflections, and although his model individual is clearly motivated by the ideational goals of emotional and intellectual self-advancement, it is far from being an ascetic. Rather, Emerson declares material prosperity to be an integral part of the project of self-realization. “Man was born to be rich” is his optimistic message. For him, there is no fundamental rivalry between mind and matter, mundanity and spirituality. Instead he assumes that inner and outer development go hand in hand.”) If you compare this quote with note 2, above, it is clear that by “man was born to be rich,” Emerson meant something much broader and more sophisticated than “man was born to be a millionaire,” and that the implication was far from an “optimistic message.” He was pointing out that human nature and biology is such that it is never satisfied and much constantly strive to obtain something, even if only food and shelter. Emerson no doubt believed that acting upon one’s environment in a meaningful way was an integral part of self-realization, but this does not necessarily, or even most of the time, take the form of achieving material prosperity. Thierbach-McLean goes onto say that “it is tempting to cast [Ronald Reagan] as a soulless materialist; but it takes only a slight shift in perspective to make his political style appear in an entirely different light, namely as that of a ‘liberal romantic who opened up the American mind to the full blaze of Emersonian optimism.’ As a matter of fact, rigorous economic liberalization paired with equally resolute cuts in social welfare fully tally with the Emersonian recipe for a healthy society, in which the innate flow of capital stimulates personal initiative and reinforces positive values such as endurance, industriousness, and prudence…it is important to appreciate that in the American mindscape the pursuit of material possessions is not automatically equated to sheer materialism, and indeed pecuniary aspects are of entirely subordinate importance here. Rather, the capitalist market has a deeper meaning in American culture as ‘a very intellectual force,’ nothing less than ‘the principle of Liberty; that [...] planted America and destroyed Feudalism; that [...] makes peace and keeps peace.’ With such theurgic qualities, the marketplace becomes a resonating body that responds favorably to the right moral attitudes and actions. It takes on the role of an incorruptible judge who, in ways not always transparent or logically traceable by the human mind, makes sure that material goods will eventually be distributed exactly according to personal merit. ‘Let them compete,’ as Emerson proclaimed, ‘and success to the strongest, who are always, at last, the wisest and best.’(Emphases added; internal citations omitted). Emerson’s English Traits was in many was celebrating the collapse of what remained of feudalism, in part due to the rise of capitalism, in England and the rest of Europe. He did not literally believe that everyone would be financially rewarded in proportion to merit; rather, as Thierbach-McLean acknowledges “He is confident that the world is ruled by an infallible universal mechanism of justice, which he calls ‘compensation.’” This belief transcends the literal balancing of books, and is more comparable to the concept of “karma” in its universality and nebulousness.

4. See notes 1-3, above, and Emerson, English Traits (“When every noble was a soldier, they were carefully bred to great personal prowess. The education of a soldier is a simpler affair than that of an earl in the nineteenth century. And this was very seriously pursued; they were expert in every species of equitation, to the most dangerous practices…All advantages given to absolve the young patrician from intellectual labor are of course mistaken.”)

5. See (“For the first time in history, a republic welcomed, perhaps even required, the release of the individual from tutelary powers, and in particular from religious authority.”

6. Abraham Lincoln, “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions,” 1838, http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/lyceum.htm.

7. See Wikipedia contributors, "Mark Hopkins (educator)," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Mark_Hopkins_(educator)&oldid=1051385844 (“In the [1956] judgment of university historian Frederick Rudolph, "no one can properly address himself to the question of higher education in the United States without paying homage in some way to the aphorism of the log and to Mark Hopkins"). (Emphases added). While Garfield “enjoyed a distinguished career as an educator” and was “largely responsible as congressman for the creation of the U.S. Office of Education, which in 1979 became the Department of Education,” he saw “no especial economic value in education,” writing "I do not believe in a college to educate men for the profession of farming.” Berube, Maurice R., American Presidents and Education (United Kingdom: Greenwood, 1991.) This philosophy of education is at odds with progressive and/or industrial conceptions of education. Half a century after the alleged meeting, a man claimed that Lincoln had told him that he did not believe formal schooling was an effective way to train soldiers; whether or not this is true, formal technical training was simply not seen as a serious form of education until after the Civil War. See Russell Herman Conwell, Why Lincoln Laughed (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1922), via Project Gutenberg, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/38423/38423-h/38423-h.htm (“...the President did not belittle the advantages to be gained by a college education properly and seriously applied. He said he often felt that he had missed a great deal by his failure to secure these advantages even though he thought the usual college education was inadequate and very impractical. He had found in his experience with the army that it took army officers from college just as long to learn military science as it did a young man from a farm.”); Thomas J. Somerby (an operator in the Military Telegraph Corps) to John H. Masters, December 14, 1861, quoted in Amherst Graduates' Quarterly (United States: Alumni Council of Amherst College, 1926). ("It is one of the best possible tributes to the telegraph that it interests the very best minds. Up in Amherst same of the ginger-pop professors used to sniff a little at my enthusiasm about telegraphy. They regard it as a trade, and not just the thing for a college man. Now comes Abraham Lincoln, the foremost of all living men today, throws his long legs across the table where [the War Department telegrapher] is receiving despatches [sic]…and says: ‘’Young man. I would give a thousand dollars if I had learned to do that when I was young. The ability to read those signals is a never-ending mystery to me.'”) (Emphases added).

8. See Diana Schaub, "On the character of Generation X," Public Interest, Fall 1999, 3, Gale Academic OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A56639770/AONE?u=mlin_oweb&sid=googleScholar&xid=4011674d. (“Some of the state constitutions, particularly that of Massachusetts (1780), paid attention to the inculcation of virtue, providing for “the support and maintenance of public Protestant teachers of piety, religion, and morality” and authorizing the legislature to “enjoin upon all the subjects an attendance upon the instructions of the public teachers aforesaid.” Likewise, the Northwest Ordinance (1787) declared: “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” Among the founders, Franklin, Jefferson, and Washington were notable for their attempts to revive the ancient idea of public schooling, complete with the ancient stress on patriotism, citizenship, and military self-sufficiency, but without the classical republican hostility to commerce and technological advance.”) (Emphases added).

9. See Emily Hess, “’It Must Develop Men’: Frederick Douglass and Education in Nineteenth-Century America,” Expositions, Vol. 8, No. 2, Villanova University, 2014, https://expositions.journals.villanova.edu/article/view/1842 (“Historian Michael Perman notes....’only a rudimentary system of public education had existed before the war…’”).

10. See ibid. (“There was no consensus among black or white southern schoolteachers concerning curriculum. Some offered Greek lessons and had their students recite the infamous John C. Calhoun before they began, ‘Show me a negro who knows Greek syntax and I will then believe that he is a human being and should be treated like a man.’ Thus many missionaries ‘meant to train men who would be treated like men.’”) (Emphases added). Presumably many of these missionaries were natives of New England.

11. See ibid. (“Only Southern blacks provided the necessary stability for this new order that emerged after the Civil War…Ex-Confederates, while defeated, were not reformed. ‘It would be absurd and ridiculous,’ [Frederick] Douglass wrote, ‘to expect that the conquered traitors will at once cordially cooperate with the Federal Government.’ Instead, a ‘new class of men, men who have hitherto exercised but little influence on the State would be needed in the South… The Freedman’s Bureau provided one of the first educational opportunities for freedmen postwar and attempted to create that safeguard for the Republic. Established by the federal government in March of 1865, the Bureau (officially known as The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands) aided ex-slaves transition from enslavement to freedom. In addition to helping locate family members, providing rations, and negotiating labor contracts, the Bureau coordinated the schooling, activities, and institution building by Northern aid, abolitionist and missionary societies for freed people’s education. For abolitionists, their work remained unfinished until the black man held equal rights in postwar society. Indeed, many Northern white women who ventured south to teach in freedmen’s schools considered themselves “soldiers,” continuing the Union campaign their father, husband, brothers, and cousins started during wartime—that is, total emancipation of the black man. Not surprisingly, abolitionists’ post-bellum activities evoked similar violent responses as their antebellum emancipation efforts…Southerners knew the potential knowledge possessed to liberate the body and mind and many engaged in racial violence and mob rule in hopes of maintaining black illiteracy and inferiority…In spite of this, by 1870, thousands of schools housed 3,300 teachers and almost 150,000 students. While this was a relatively small portion of the freed population, the Bureau’s educational advancements in the postwar South are considered their greatest success. Unlike the Bureau’s other efforts, education was the only activity that left permanent institutions in the South as bureau leaders were ‘convinced that blacks would benefit more by recognition as equal citizens than from being treated as a special class permanently dependent upon federal assistance and protection.’…Besides acquiring land, blacks looked to education to free them from mental and physical dependency on the Southern white populationEven before the founding of the Freedman’s Bureau, Northern nonsectarian and evangelical societies sent teachers to areas of the Union-occupied South to teach black men and women ‘the ways of ‘civilization’ and freedom’… Black teachers held a prominent place in the black community as the schoolhouse, second only to the church, became the “institutional and emotional anchor of black life.” Considered the “community leaders” and “interracial diplomats” of the black community, teaching oftentimes served as a springboard into politics. Black teachers invested in the success of the Republican Party for they knew that ensured Southern black education. After successfully ratifying the 13th amendment, many Republicans wondered what could replace antislavery “as the leading Republican idealistic issue.” The Republican Party decided to promote public schools, especially for emancipated blacks, so they would be ‘worthy of the responsibilities of citizenship and suffrage.’”) (Emphases added; internal citations omitted).

12. Most of these southerners were white, but some black southerners also felt the Yankee tradition either verged on presumptuousness by imposing itself on a region with different cultural assumptions or was a poor fit for the region’s educational needs.

13. See Schaub, "On the character of Generation X."

14. See ibid

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid. It is likely that the obstacles to full self-sufficiency and political independence faced by southerners (black and white, mostly for different reasons) for decades after the war made the economic aspects more salient and increased openness to novel and/or progressive theories (see note 17, below). The introduction of black teachers doubling as community mediators and diplomats (see note 10, above), and the lack of consensus between northern missionary teachers and their colleagues (see note 9, above) likely provided further room for innovation. See also Hess, “’It Must Develop Men’: Frederick Douglass and Education in Nineteenth-Century America” (“Although the Bureau was officially dismantled by 1872, freedmen “took control of the educational system and transformed federal schools into local free schools.” Freedman’s Bureau schools provided the necessary foundation for a movement towards general Southern public education. Republicans, with black legislators trailblazing the path, established “the principle of state responsibility for public education” with the Reconstruction constitutions requiring tax-supported school systems for children of both races… ‘only a fraction of the black school-age population—as little as five percent in Georgia—had been reached by the schools established by the missionary societies and the Freedman’s Bureau after emancipation.’ Again, blacks showed their zeal for education by outnumbering white students in both Mississippi and South Carolina.”) Hess also writes: “…in the three decades following the Civil War, freedmen responded to educational opportunities afforded them in such a manner that almost shocked white Southerners Blacks moved from rural areas to towns, sacrificed to afford an education for their children, and established mock schoolhouses in churches, stables, basements, billiard rooms, plantation cotton houses, warehouses, and homes before missionary societies set up formal schooling. Even while negotiating labor contracts, some black men and women asked that the planter financially support the local black schoolhouse…” (Emphases added; internal citations omitted). This seems to show various groups in the south finding ways to meet practical needs and negotiate social stability; such efforts tended to be small-scale, ad hoc, and confined to particular communities, rather than cohering into a standardized regional practice or large-scale top-down system. This lack of legibility and institutionalization left room for diverse experimentation as well as discrimination and neglect. See also note 18, below.

18. See David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition) (“[In the mid-1890s, Booker T. Washington called for accommodation by blacks with certain elements of white supremacy and Jim Crow in exchange for industrial education and social security. Washington would to a degree trade disfranchisement and segregation for racial peace and economic opportunity. Although never sharing Washington’s acquiescence with Jim Crow or any diminution of the right to vote, [Frederick] Douglass had long prefigured the Wizard of Tuskegee on the philosophy of self-reliance.”) (Emphases added; internal citations omitted).

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.

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