Thinking Confederates: Academia and the Idea of Progress in the New South

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Thinking Confederates: Academia and the Idea of Progress in the New South. By Dan R. Frost. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2000. Pp. xiv, 207; $40.00, cloth; $15.00 paper.)

It is a well established tradition to lament that the history of southern education is slighted. Although excellent work has been done on the topic, vast swaths remain terra incognita. Higher education in the so-called New South is one of those understudied areas in which longstanding assumptions have acquired the status of confirmed wisdom. Dan R. Frost sets out in Thinking Confederates to revise the conventional lore about southern higher education after the Civil War. The Confederate veterans who assumed the leadership of many southern colleges and universities often have been depicted as hidebound devotees of the Old South and the Lost Cause. Robert Lewis Dabney, the indefatigable scold of the New South, and the University of the South, a traditionalist bastion, epitomize this perceived reactionary drift of postbellum education. Frost dissents from this interpretation, insisting that the former Confederates actually promoted academic and regional modernization.

In this concise book, Frost begins with the tenuous foundations of higher education in the Old South. For all the talk of southern nationalists before the Civil War, many white southerners seemed unmoved by the call for robust centers of learning in the region. Moreover, conservative educators quarantined southern colleges and universities from most educational innovations and remained tenacious advocates of classical curricula. Frost's point is that postbellum southern higher education cannot be understood without taking into account its antebellum institutional and intellectual inheritance.

The Civil War, Frost demonstrates, had an immediate and profound impact on southern colleges and universities. In many instances, the war deprived campuses of faculty, students and funding. But its most profound influence was in prompting a reconsideration of the aims of higher education. For many post-war academic leaders, the war exposed the failings of southern education and the desperate need for relevant, modern curricula. Battlefield experiences taught these men painful lessons about the technological superiority of the North.

After the Civil War, Confederate veterans assumed the leadership of many southern colleges and universities. When Washington College appointed Robert E. Lee as president in 1865, it established a precedent of turning to the ranks of veterans for administrators that other schools adopted. What these battle-hardened administrators brought to their new jobs was a world view and educational philosophy that was congruent with the progressive and materialistic temper of the age. Although they evinced no embarrassment about the failed Confederate experiment, they nevertheless regretted the stultifying effects of slavery on the Old South. They welcomed the abolition of slavery, which they believed removed the major obstacle to the progress of their region. By transforming southern higher education, they proposed to align the South with the forces of modernity. They embraced contemporary notions of Anglo-Saxon superiority and of the inevitability of progress. And they set about remaking southern colleges and universities accordingly. To do so they initiated technical and professional curricula, expanded faculty, raised salaries, and modernized their campuses.

Frost's contribution here is not so much to see what others have not seen but a shift in emphasis. Frost takes seriously the New South rhetoric and reform ambitions of these educators, whereas other scholars have given them short shrift. …