Schooling in the Antebellum South: The Rise of Public and Private Education in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama

By Bohlen, Michael William | The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Summer 2017 | Go to article overview

Schooling in the Antebellum South: The Rise of Public and Private Education in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama


Bohlen, Michael William, The Arkansas Historical Quarterly


Schooling in the Antebellum South: The Rise of Public and Private Education in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. By Sarah L. Hyde. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2016. Pp. xiii, 212. Acknowledgments, tables, notes, bibliography, index. $42.50.)

In Schooling in the Antebellum South, Sarah L. Hyde challenges a narrative that suggests that white southerners expressed little interest in education prior to Reconstruction. Though historians have succeeded in recovering the importance of schooling in the postwar period, the educational history of the antebellum South has changed very little since Edgar W. Knight published Public Education in the South in 1922. Thus, according to received wisdom, it was not until Reconstruction and the advent of universal public education that learning assumed its proper station in the benighted region. Presenting a story of incremental change, Schooling in the Antebellum South counters with a powerful corrective to a historiography that has too often given rise to an image of southerners "as shiftless bumpkins content with illiteracy and ignorance" (p. 1). Focusing on the Gulf South, Hyde argues that "[f]rom the beginning southerners accepted the premise that state governments should be involved in education endeavors" as they "embraced learning as means of social mobility" and "insisted on greater access" (pp. 4-5).

According to Hyde, in the 1820s and 1830s, efforts to meet the educational needs of the white children of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama primarily took place in the private sector as parents typically provided schooling in the home, either through educated relatives or hired tutors. Suggesting that historians have neglected this aspect of southern learning, Hyde contends that scattered, low-density settlement made formal schooling difficult to support, while the rhythms of agricultural life and parents' ability to control content made home education an attractive strategy for many southerners. For those with the means to send their children to one of the many private academies or field schools that dotted the region, homeschooling often functioned as preparation for more rigorous learning later as students matured. Combing letters and diaries of parents, students, and teachers, Hyde makes a compelling case that education was, indeed, an "integral component of southern society" as families sacrificed both their time and finances "to procure for their children the blessings of knowledge" (p. 45). Even as the gravitational pull of institutions continues to divert historians' attention from non-formal or unsystematic forms of education, Hyde directs readers toward new sites of interest that prove to be illuminating.

However important informal and/or private education was in antebellum southern society, Hyde, nevertheless, addresses the political economy of the Gulf States, arguing that legislative initiatives to finance, regulate, and provision primary and secondary schooling reflected southerners' belief that education was necessary for the well-being of the region. To the extent that state legislatures initially involved themselves in education, their activities were restricted to supporting existing private institutions to reduce costs and provide tuition assistance to children in poverty. Hyde summons numerous examples of state governors from each of the Gulf States encouraging state-sponsored education. State legislatures responded by licensing local municipalities to levy taxes to support schools, creating educational funds and offices to coordinate administration, and granting state appropriations to local schools. …

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