The Rise of the South in American Thought and Education

The Rockefeller Years (1902-1917) and Beyond

by John M. Heffron (Author)
©2022 Monographs XII, 268 Pages


The Rise of the South in American Thought and Education documents the generalization of southern values and institutions northward at the close of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. The traditional emphasis in the South on vocational education (a reflection of the Christian ethic of work as redemption, not the Republican one of free labor), country life and living, racial segregation, and the centrality of nature study as a source of both science and religion, added up to a coherent vision that responded to "undesirable" economic and social change in the urban North. The survival of Southern cultural traditions, as antiquated as they were, posed no threat to the plans of corporate progressives; indeed, as the book argues, it facilitated them, and nowhere more so than in the field of education. Modern educators wanting to put into historical context relations of class, race, and ethnicity as they persist in today’s schools will find much here to inform them, putting to rest, for example, false distinctions in the history of school reform between a liberal-progressive North and a conservative and reactionary South. The book will appeal as well as to a popular audience of Americans curious to understand the illiberal foundations of the modern liberal state.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface by Jackie M. Blount
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • PART I. Southern Sources of Conservative Reform
  • 1. “Old times there are not forgotten”: A Didactic New South in the Development Plans of the North, 1880–1903
  • 2. Moral and Practical Uplift in the New Agricultural Education: Nation-Building for a Solid South, 1900–1920
  • 3. “To Form a More Perfect Union”: The Moral Example of Southern Baptist Thought and Education, 1890–1920
  • PART II. The Knowledge Most Worth Having: Otis W. Caldwell and the Rise of General Science
  • 4. Otis W. Caldwell, Part I: Nature Study, Ecumenicalism, and the Rise of General Science
  • 5. Otis W. Caldwell, Part II: The Mission of Science in General Education
  • PART III. Progressive Schooling in the Southern Tradition
  • 6. Race Education for All: “The Hampton-Tuskegee Idea” and Its Americanization
  • 7. The New Machinery of Social Discipline: Educating for an Immigrant Nation, the Case of the Gary Schools
  • 8. The Lincoln School of Teachers College: Elitism and Educational Democracy
  • Epilogue: The Global (American) South: The Past as Prologue?
  • Index

←viii | ix→


Challenging conventional understandings is hard work. Historians who attempt it not only must offer persuasive and thoroughly grounded interpretations for their own theses, but they also must cast more than a reasonable doubt about the taken-for-granted scholarly assumptions they counter. They should prepare to address skeptics—and they must be on their game.

Jay Heffron, in The Rise of the South in American Thought and Education, dares to suggest that during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Southern strands of progressive education ultimately may have more profoundly impacted the nation’s schools than those from the North—or from any other region for that matter. No doubt, this contention will provoke spirited debates, but Heffron is ready and on his game. He has chipped away at this volume for some 38 years, starting with his doctoral research utilizing the Rockefeller Archives Center and numerous other collections, extending through a range of connected publications and presentations, and persisting in his painstaking commitment to this research even as he provided significant leadership to SOKA University of America during its formative years, among other things. The result is an expansive history that, despite the seeming improbability of the task, quite convincingly brings diverse intellectual and cultural strands together in a tightly argued narrative.

←ix | x→

Heffron contends that the intellectual roots of progressivism extend deeply into southern soil. As such, southern emphases on racial segregation, rural life, education for vocations, community pride/regional solidarity, and nature study shaped a general approach to education that would influence northern urban systems as they reformed schools enrolling large numbers of children from economically insecure and/or culturally “othered” families. “So completely,” he writes, “did the themes of Southern life and culture enter into the educational plans of Northern elites that not only do we need to question the whole trope of ‘northernization,’ but more drastically the rationalist, liberal-humanitarian roots of progressivism itself.” He describes how northern philanthropic organizations like the Rockefeller Foundation largely fueled these efforts by way of boards they funded, especially the General Education Board.

Heffron’s meticulously documented analysis moves from the intellectual and cultural contexts of the post-Reconstruction through Progressive Era in Part 1, to an examination of the work of Otis W. Caldwell, a multifaceted and influential science educator with deep connections to the General Education Board in the second part. In the third part, he devotes a chapter each to the “Hampton-Tuskegee Idea,” a midwestern translation of “southern” reforms as manifested in the Gary, IN Schools, and finally, a pivotal northern variant in the Lincoln School of Teachers College, which Caldwell directed.

In the end, Heffron describes ongoing movements that continue to reinforce the racism at our national core. He argues that they share “an educational heritage rooted in progressive ideals, wedded to the prerogatives of race, class, and ethnicity, and reflecting the corporate industrial values of modern America.” And, importantly, he helps us understand why we should try to understand this. These are not concerns for those “over there,” but rather for all of us to face. He is not challenging conventional assumptions lightly, but instead stands ready for more meaningful dialogue to come. For this I am grateful.

Jackie M. Blount
Professor of the Philosophy and History of Education Department of Educational Studies
College of Education and Human Ecology
Ohio State University

←x | xi→


The old Benedictine rule “laborare est orare”—to work is to pray—seems to fit well the circumstances under which this book came to pass. My prayers (and imprecations) must have been heard, for what has emerged over the last thirty some odd years since the material, or much of it, first appeared in dissertation form and later in disparate journal articles and book chapters is something I no longer recognize as my own, but as the result of the support and encouragement of countless others, including, I hasten to add, all my blind reviewers. Whatever is redeeming about the book, I owe to the many people who in one way of another have endorsed its publication as a salient and self-contained whole.

In the beginning, there was the late, great Christopher Lasch, my mentor at the University of Rochester. His tireless attention, literally word-for-word, to the work, including four-page single-spaced letters of exacting criticisms combined with life-saving encouragement, helped guarantee that it would one day see the light of day.

The book, and the doctoral dissertation from which it is in part derived, draws heavily on archival sources for the argument it makes, a controversial one, around the generalization of southern values and institutions northward during the post-Reconstruction period, the Rockefeller General Education Board (GEB) and its backers, including the likes of “progressives” like Charles W. Eliot, being ←xi | xii→major catalysts. I owe a great debt of gratitude to the men and women who staff and supervise the private collections that have played so central a part in arguing this case. They include the archivists at the Lilly Library, University of Indiana Bloomington, the Houghton Library, Harvard University, the Harvey Library, Hampton University, the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, the National Archives and the Library of Congress, Special Collections at Teachers College Columbia, the American Baptist Historical Society, the Otis W. Caldwell Papers in the possession of the late Mrs. George A. Harrop, and first and foremost the Rockefeller Archive Center in Pocantico Hills, NJ where I spent one summer doing my research.

A whole slew of friends and colleagues, many of them fellow members of the History of Education Society, have been instrumental in helping me to see this project through. They include, much of their work drawn from and cited here, Jim Anderson, Ron Cohen, John Rury, Bill Reese, Ron Butchart, Wayne Urban, Jim Leloudis, Bob Arnove, Don Warren, David Labaree, Jon Zimmerman, and not least of all my Lang series editors, Alan Sadovnik and Susan Semel. I am also indebted to two colleagues at the University of Hawaii Manoa, where I worked from 1991 to 1996, Ralph Stueber and the late Idus Newby, both of whom helped me to narrow my argument.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge Soka University of America and its leadership for their ongoing support and encouragement, beginning with the founder of the University, Daisaku Ikeda, and its president emeritus, Daniel Y. Habuki.

Thank you one and all.

←xii | 1→


Meant not so much as an impeachment of the region than a query around its apotheosis—a false one—from the post-Reconstruction period forward, the book is a study of the generalization of southern values and institutions, including but not limited to their racial and class dimensions, to a national reform movement in education in which private philanthropy—first and foremost the Rockefeller General Education Board (GEB)—played a decisive role. In 1903 Lyman Abbott, editor of The Outlook, a magazine famously crossing religious with social and political issues, addressed delegates to the Sixth Conference for Education in the South, a conference where many northerners (among them the Rockefellers) received their first introduction to the topic, with these words: “We may well hope that the present Southern educational enthusiasm may spread to the Northern states, where education is in danger of becoming somewhat perfunctory, may inspire it with new and deeper life, and may end by creating throughout the Nation an educational revival, the modern analogue of the evangelistic revivals of a past epoch …”1 The post-Reconstruction history leading up to the establishment of ←1 | 2→the GEB a year earlier in 1902 provides important background for understanding why the Board and its friends should have been so interested in the Southern example, or what it viewed as such. Eager to reconcile change with continuity, dynamic economic development with cultural and political stability, industrial statesmen like the Rockefellers understood the country’s need for orderly change, which would integrate the latest scientific ideas with its most cherished traditions. For the GEB, science, southernness, and vocationalism became the elements of a “comprehensive system” of education that, its leaders hoped, would reconcile urban-industrialization—a rapid and rabid process—with those values most endangered by it—family, church, and community.2 What the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, worried famously about in 1949, that technology would lose its ancient roots in technē (art) and poiēsis (poetry), was not however the concern or the motivation here.3 “Private power and public purpose, industrial productivity and godliness, grass roots support generated by agents of New York millionaires, talk of universal education and democratic purpose in a caste society—these seem contradictory if not hypocritical in retrospect,” David Tyack and Elizabeth Hansot have written. “But in the special millennialism of the day in the South, the [educational] awakening brought to whites a dream of Progress that combined a Protestant social evangelism with the promise of modern efficiency, a union of missionaries and social engineers.”4 How this “dream of Progress”—a social philosophy rooted in and loyal to an idealized Southern past, peddled by godly mercantilists in both the North and the South (“a union of missionaries and social engineers”), and marching under the banner of science and reason—how this dream found ultimate expression in the annals of American education is the subject of the book. The question it poses—How did the South educate the educators—suggests a different pattern of events than the familiar one of Radical Reconstruction, Republican apostasy, and liberal disillusionment, often couched in the literature as the “abandonment” not only of Reconstruction but of the freed people as a whole, abandoned to allegedly backward-looking modes of oppression and social control.5

←2 | 3→

The South’s traditional rural character; its “special millennialism” combining a religious heritage in revealed Christology with a scientific one in Baconian doxology; its paternalistic system of race relations inherited from slavery; even its “culture of honor”; these are just a few of the distinctive values and mores that allegedly set the South apart from the rest of the nation during what was a critical period in its urban-industrial development—from the end of Reconstruction and the return of home rule, to the rise of a new “Redeemer South,” to American entry into World War I.6 This same period saw not coincidentally the rise of the so-called New Education, a movement originating among pro-Southern progressives in the North, principal among them Charles W. Eliot and Abraham Flexner, both of them members of the GEB. The New Education became a vehicle for the introduction and ultimately for the acceptance of Southern values as dominant and peculiarly American values. Supported by interlocking philanthropic forces, North and South, what united the New Education and its allies was a desire not only to improve public education in the South, but in the process to articulate a more generalized vision of education itself, one that would hold an equal appeal to northern and southern elites alike. At the turn of the 20th century, it was the black lives at agricultural and industrial training institutes in the South, first and foremost among them Hampton and Tuskegee, that served as sociological fodder for a racialized vision of public education (what I call “race education for all”) aided and abetted by philanthropists and their friends in progressive education, promoting vocational, non-college-bound schooling for the children of recent immigrants, for all blacks, and for most working class whites—all lumped together now as so-called “dependent peoples.”7 Speaking in 1901 at a convention of the Southern Industrial Association, Robert C. Ogden, a wealthy businessman from Philadelphia who served as a trustee for these schools, stated: “The breadth of view which General Armstrong [Hampton founder] inspired has brought a large company of people through the influence of negro education to the consideration of white education, and thus to see the Southern educational question as ←3 | 4→a unit, with the negro as a great incident, but nevertheless incidental to the larger question.” And the larger question? A popular education in which “Commerce and Education are twins,” said Ogden, the foreign population of the North and the illiterate white and African-American people of the South being “the material upon which this educational work must be done.” In this regard, as he reminded his audience, “The questions of the South are historic and organic that carry with them national responsibility.”8 Modern educators wanting to put into historical context relations of class, race, and ethnicity as they persist in today’s schools will find much here to inform them, putting to rest, for example, false distinctions in the history of school reform between a liberal-progressive North and a conservative and reactionary South.

So completely did the themes of Southern life and culture enter into the educational plans of Northern elites that not only do we need to question the whole trope of “northernization,” but more drastically the rationalist, liberal-humanitarian roots of progressivism itself. If it is true, as James Leloudis has written, that “The new education constituted the natural order of things and, in that sense, was no longer new at all” and that by the turn of the nineteenth century the “natural order of things” consisted largely of “an output model of instruction,” one entailing “a lifeless matter of numbers and score, percentages and efficiencies,” the South was no less free of these tendencies than the North with or without its influence.9 Such considerations notwithstanding, the literature of northernization continues to occupy a central place in the historiography of the Civil War and its aftermath. The exegesis of North-South ascendancy cuts across otherwise conflicting Whig, liberal-progressive, and revisionist accounts of the Reconstruction period. It depicts a prostrate South that for good or ill was “open game” to the ambitions of northern businessmen, educators, and politicians; a South that, despite a strong self-identity, was powerless to shape its own destiny or to overcome the influence of the North. Compared to the conservative solidarity ←4 | 5→of the South, the North’s own emerging consensus was an allegedly more liberal, progressive, and humanitarian one; certainly not the “triumph of conservativism” described once by Gabriel Kolko.10

The case for northernization appears in such standard works as Kenneth Stampp, The Era of Reconstruction, 1865–1877 (1967), Willie Lee Rose, Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment (1965), and C. Vann Woodward, The Origins of the New South, 1877–1913 (1951). It appears unabashedly in Richard N. Current, Northernizing the South (1983) and elsewhere in J. Morgan Kausser and James M. McPherson, ed. Region, Race, and Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of C. Vann Woodward (1982) and Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (1988). More recently one finds it in an otherwise unlikely place, in William H. Watkins, The White Architects of Black Education: Ideology and Power in America, 1865–1954 (2001), where the author makes, but then drops from further consideration, the fertile suggestion that “support for colonial education for Blacks was subsumed by the broader call for mass education,” falling back on the old distinction between “a dominant North and an obedient South,” the South as “part of a northern hegemonist agenda.” In a book of the name, “The Problem South” (2012) becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy:

The image of the South as the nation’s problem served an ideological purpose; demarcating the region as a backward space reinforced the hegemony of the nation-state and created a sense of urgency surrounding sectional reunion. National efforts by northern and southern reformers to modernize the South was central to the development of early twentieth-century liberalism and part of the process of nation-state formation.11

Even when reunion did occur on more-or-less equal terms—as Nina Silber wants to say in perhaps the most ambition effort to date to identify a “culture of conciliation” between North and South—it was “mainly … an amorous endeavor,” “romantic and sentimental,” a “marriage bond” in which the South was once again the “junior partner” in an essentially unequal, highly gendered relationship: “the union of the southern belle with the business-oriented northern man.” A symbolic marriage to be sure, it was still one conveying “powerlessness and alienation.” ←5 | 6→Southerners, writes Silber, “used the image to underscore their increasing marginalization from the political process,” a process (the belief was and is) securely in the hands Northerners.12

The flip side of this argument is that the South was a closed society both before and after the Civil War. On this account, the movement in the South to re-establish a strong regional identity was an inward-turning, a centripetal movement gathering unto itself all that was peculiarly Southern and shutting out all other influences. This view of Southern introversion and cultural isolation appears in its most refined version in Charles Regan Wilson, Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865–1920 (1980) and Paul M. Gaston, The New South Creed: A Study in Southern Mythmaking (1970). My own view comes closer to that of Gaines M. Foster that “most white southerners, despite their alleged heedless romanticism and obsessive love of the past, were far too realistic to let bitter memories get in the way of rebuilding their society.” I do not, however, agree with his suggestion that in the end the majority of southerners reconciled themselves to northern cultural norms. Ronald Butchart puts the lie to this in Schooling the Freed People (2010), demonstrating conclusively that during Reconstruction northern teachers were the exception in the South, not the rule, and that in any case for the majority of teachers “black freedom was virtually absent in their thinking and acting.” Indeed, quite to the contrary, Northern reformers, as Butchart shows, capitulated to Southern cultural norms, first and foremost to white supremacy. “By the end of the nineteenth century,” he writes, “a triumphalist white supremacy reunited the North and the South.”13

The theme of northernization is also amply represented in the history of southern and especially black education, even in its most sympathetic accounts. Thus, Spencer J. Maxey writes that “Southern school reforms took as their model the work done in the North” and that “without the example of Northern city school structures, rural Southern secondary schools would have continued in ←6 | 7→the quasi-free academy tradition.”14 As some have suggested, and what the book attempts to demonstrate more conclusively, the hermeneutic of northernization is nevertheless inadequate for an understanding of the complex, dialectical forces that governed regional relations in the post-bellum era.15 The flow of northern aid and philanthropy South after the Civil War was not the divine commission Radical Republicans and ex-Abolitionists depicted it to be, one in which northern liberals, seething with moral indignation, attempted to “impose” a superior value system on recalcitrant ex-Confederates. In the first decade of Reconstruction, superiority, either moral or cultural, may have been a popular illusion in the North, but it was never a reality. Many of the main players in the South’s reconstruction understood this implicitly, acting from a much deeper respect for its institutions than historians have recognized up until now.

The southern work of the General Education Board (GEB), many of whose officers were transplanted, loyal sons of the South, is a good case in point, contradicting the image both of the imperious carpetbagger and the traitorous scalawag. It shows that philanthropy—the most popular form of northern aid to the South (and in education certainly the largest)—was motivated less by eleemosynary ideals than by a clear conception of the value of the southern experience to national concerns, foremost among them the need for a more efficient and effective system of public education. Because the Board’s work in the South was consistent with the political and educational goals of the region’s leaders—what Joan Malczewski, in a magisterial work on the subject, refers to as the “interstitial collaboration” of foundations with state and local government—and because its members were willing, even anxious, to learn from those goals, the GEB, although a distinctly northern organization, was never mustered out of the South.16 It was able to ←7 | 8→break the cycle of hope, disillusionment, and retrenchment experienced by so many other northern-based reform groups, in part by taking a longer and more pragmatic view of its role in the region, but primarily because of its willingness to accept elements of the status quo that the “do-gooders” were unwilling to, like fusion politics, the South’s crop-lien system, and its segregated schools and churches.

When we look at what the South stood for in the minds of those allegedly “liberal” northern men and women who stayed in the region, weathering the rise and fall of Reconstruction and with their confidence in southern institutions setting the stage for a new set of national reforms, there is a sense in which it is possible to speak of the North’s incipient “southernization,” its gradual absorption or re-absorption of traditional Southern values.17 For in spite of an antiquated social system (“the new plutocracy” in C. Vann Woodward’s words) inherited from slavery, an historical bias toward limited government and single party politics, and the South’s especially virulent brand of Anglo-Saxon rural and religious fundamentalism, there were growing numbers of northern progressives who by the end of the nineteenth century seemed to welcome the rise of the New South.18 Faced with considerable problems of their own, they saw the region and what it had come to symbolize as an important counterweight to centrifugal ←8 | 9→tendencies in the North. The most disturbing of those tendencies are familiar to any student of fin de siècle America: the predatory individualism of the Robber Baron, the “inefficiency” of machine and partisan politics, the rampant growth of cities and their subsequent “Romanization” by a floodtide of southern and eastern European immigrants, and the rise of such potentially disruptive, severance groups as the Populists, the Knights of Labor, and the American Federation of Labor. Although retrograde themselves, the qualities progressives assigned to the South would provide an antidote to forces in the North that were considered rash, anarchic, selfish, and uncivilized. It seemed there were elements of the old plantation society that even as they were fading in the South took on fresh meaning and significance in the North, becoming, as James C. Cobb has written, “not just compatible with but almost integral to the establishment of a new industrial [order].”

Regardless of who ruled the late nineteenth century South, the prevailing core of reactionary, socially insensitive policies that characterized the era was far more likely to please than to put off the industrialists who were pursuing southern locations.19

Or as Nina Silber has argued from a very different perspective, one emphasizing the anti-modernist strain in North-South relations, “Confronted with the haunting specters of class conflict, ethnic strife, and alienation that their own industrialized society had produced, many northerners were unconvinced about the benefits of industrial society and about obliterating whatever remained of the old southern legacy.”20 These two views are not as incompatible as they may at first seem, however. The Civil War and its aftermath confronted Mugwumpish Americans on both sides of the conflict with a frightening new array of social and political conditions. As they gazed into the mirror of the present, with its clash of titanic racial and working-class forces, the Old South began to look more and more attractive every day. Soon they were worshiping its image openly as—in a view warped by their circumstances—a last vestige of classical republican virtue, with its injunctions to reason, moderation, and disinterested benevolence. In their ←9 | 10→writings, public statements, and private asides, they stressed the continuity of the Old and New South and took every opportunity to minimize the basic sectional differences between the two regions. As the religious, business, and educational leaders of their respective regions, they formed a loosely organized coalition for the promotion of southern values and institutions, with the goal of reducing to acceptable limits, if not of eliminating altogether, the growing drift toward modernism and all that it implied. In the Southern critique of the Gilded Age “was a useful foil,” writes Woodward, “for the unlovely present or the symbol of some irreparable loss.”21

In 1870 Edwin De Leon, a former propagandist for the Confederacy, described the unification of North and South as an inevitability in his important essay, “The New South: What it is Doing and What it Wants.” “Each successive day,” he wrote, “blends and bends more ultimately together the lives and fortunes of the two.” Mississippi democrat Wiley P. Harris opposed any trend toward “sectional seclusion,” calling for a permanent alliance between the “grand old party” and liberal Republicans. “We are in a new world,” he said. “We are moving on a new plane.” Complaining in 1905 of what he called “Northern sectionalism,” Edgar Gardner Murphy, the progressive educator from Alabama, noted a tendency to see the problems of the South as peculiar to the South rather than as issues “between Americans everywhere.” Writing of the country’s “single and inclusive fate,” Murphy called on his fellow progressives to bring into being “a new North as well as a new South.”22 Rhetoric alone, however, would not be enough to overcome the lag ←10 | 11→between economic modernization and cultural stability—the competing centrifugal and centripetal forces—that in the minds of Northern elites was at the heart of so many of the region’s difficulties. In the South, on the other hand, progress and tradition appeared to go hand in hand. For the great southern historian, Ulrich B. Phillips, at once a critic of white supremacy and an apologist for legal disenfranchisement, this paradox was the essence of the Southern experience. Conservatism and progress, according to Phillips, “are not essentially antagonistic. Conservatism need not be of the Bourbon type, never learning and never forgetting; the spirit of progress need not be exaggerated into radicalism,” a reference to the nihilism of the free market system of the North. David R. Goldfield, in his study of the agrarian roots of southern urbanization, sees progress and tradition as “two sides of the same southern coin.” This equilibrium, as Eugene Genovese has pointed out, impressed itself upon northerners in the one area in which their own more divided system seemed least likely to succeed, the area of race relations. Hence, the efforts of the GEB and others, in the words of Eric Anderson and Alfred Moss, to “standardize southern black education” across the board.23

It is one of the ironies of Reconstruction that by the time southern Bourbons had begun to launch their own counter-reformation against the North, conducting in the 1870s and 80s a great “war of ideas” against “the Yankee magna bona of money and dis play” and resurrecting in large areas of the South the plantation economy of the past, Reconstruction as an effective political movement, threatening the South’s traditional way-of-life, was already dead.24 Against such an attack, ex-Abolitionists were no longer able to take the higher moral ground, saddled as they were with their own considerable political problems in the North. Nor were they any longer in a position, guilty now of their own malfeasance, to protest allegations of northern plutocracy or, worse, to deny in them the re-emergence ←11 | 12→of the social and economic forms of antebellum feudalism. To be more honest, they were “thrilled by them,” as one particularly astute observer of the period has noted. Yankees, wrote Gunnar Myrdal, “apparently cherish the idea of having had an aristocracy and of still having a real class society in the South, so [they] manufacture the myth of the ‘Old South’.” Yankees recognized in the Southern planter-class many of the same qualities they themselves aspired to as successful merchant capitalists. Notwithstanding its long-time removal as a voting requirement, there survived in the South a traditional view of property ownership and its productive management as conveying with it certain rights and responsibilities, an ethic of paternalism, undergirded in turn by a “muscular Christianity,” that it was important—in fact, a duty—to uphold in the name of a new and transcendent, pro-business version of classlessness. Agricultural and industrial elitists alike, in both the North and the South, looked to popular education as one means to reinforce these old and, in the current predicament, remedial truths. “The alliance between commerce and intellectual development,” Ogden wrote Charles W. Dabney, former Assistant Secretary of Agriculture under Grover Cleveland and then President of the University of Tennessee in 1903, “cannot fail to bring material results of a most important nature. When capital [a reference at the time to the work, ‘national and patriotic,’ of the SEB/GEB] realizes the economic value of education, the financial difficulty that confronts educational progress will largely be solved.”25

At Ogden’s writing, only one real federal response existed to the cry for greater capitalization of education—the meagre coffers of the national Bureau of Education, then a mere shunt off the larger Department of the Interior. From ←12 | 13→its formation in 1870 to 1929, when its functions were transferred to a separate department, the Bureau of Education had had to settle for scraps from the fiscal pot. On June 11, 1912 in a hearing before the Committee on Education, House of Representatives, the Bureau’s new Commissioner, Philander P. Claxton, pointing out the need for an annual appropriation of $220,000, declared “I am asking for money for men and women to study the great fundamental problems afflicting the great masses of Children and of interest to us all.” Brought before the House Ways and Means Committee, the request, caught in the political crossfire between a Republican administration and a Democratic House, was denied. Still a relatively new phenomenon in the early 1900s, public education required, no less than in the beginning, the active support and encouragement of as many people as possible. Claxton, it should be pointed out, was a stolid member of the General Education Board between 1903 and his assumption of the commissionership in 1911.26

Compare the capitalization of the Bureau of Education with that of the General Education Board (GEB), incorporated in 1903 with a gift from Rockefeller Sr. of $10,000,000. By 1912, the GEB had been in existence for only ten years, yet its assets amounted by that time to $53,000,000. When in 1907 Rockefeller’s son John D. Jr. announced his father’s latest gift of $32,000,000, the Board, jolted by the announcement, hardly knew how to respond. In an oblique reference to its irrationality, the Board wrote Rockefeller Sr. to thank him for the “high and wise impulse” that prompted the gift. Yet it was obvious where the burden fell, for with these monies went “the most far-reaching responsibility ever placed on any educational organization in the world.” With a hundred times more funds at its disposal than the federal government had been willing to grant its own small educational agency, the GEB in one short decade found itself in a position to affect American education as no other group had or would in the foreseeable future.27 And yet to appreciate the magnitude of the Board’s activities, one needs ←13 | 14→to forget for a moment how much money it had at its disposal. The real test of its influence and credibility lay in its relations with the outside world, with professional educators and educational administrators. Many of these individuals were already suspicious and a little afraid of the Rockefeller millions, a favorite barb of Progressive muckrakers.28

Overcoming their doubts was a major concern of the GEB, but it meant literally co-opting the educational reform movement underway at the time. Conveniently, many of the principle characters of that movement became Board members, first and foremost among them Charles W. Eliot. Others were so closely allied in their research interests to the Board that they became vocal supporters, John Dewey himself co-authoring a General Education Board Occasional Paper in 1915–16 entitled “A Modern School.”

The formation first of the Southern Education Board in 1901 (by none other than Robert C. Ogden) and the General Education Board two years later created an educational Mecca in the deep South. For the members of the two Boards—all with a record of involvement in Baptist or Presbyterian missionary work, yet deemed “the busiest of business men”—their mission in the South was nothing less that the re-spiritualization of the whole country. Powerful religious, educational and business leaders, meeting in camera, “interchanged their dreams of a better America, which they saw not by sight but by faith. It was a symbol of religion in the twentieth century,” reminisced one participant, “of a faith known by its works, of a service that was perfect freedom, of the spiritualization which is still possible for men of the world.”29 To the men of private means involved in its uplift, the South had become a perfect model for the needs of the nation, its preoccupation with race-relations and their management making the region an ideal setting for educational and social experiments aimed, on the one hand, at ←14 | 15→the assimilation of America’s new population of foreign immigrants and Freedmen and, on the other, at an agricultural and industrial education for all, science and religion working no longer in opposition to one another but in a throwback to Enlightenment deism in complete accord.

The book consists of three parts. Part I: Southern Sources of Conservative Reform in turn consists of three chapters. Chapter one identifies early influences in the formation of the GEB, including antebellum pro-slavery thought and its transformation after 1865 into a cult of Southern paternalism. As Butchart has written, “If slavery existed to civilize Africans, paternalism emerged as the means to assure that the civilizing process had a moral foundation.” Resting on a foundation of Anglo-Saxonism that Southern whites saw as their unique “gift” to the nation, it “pervaded the entire social order,” argues Butchart. “The preservation of the America government is in the hands of the South,” averred Reverend R. Lin Cave in 1896, “because Southern blood is purely American.” The pro-slavery apologist, George Fitzhugh, made the same point half a century earlier, stating “In any view of the subject, Southern thought and Southern example must rule the world.” This glorified image of the South as standing “at the lead of modern civilization” was in the 1850s part of the face-saving rhetoric of a generation of Southern slaveholders confronted with the prospect of utter moral and economic collapse. Its revival and diversification in the religion of the Lost Cause, the New South, and Southern progressivism had more “positive,” nominally scientific sources, sources no less solidly rooted in the ancient prerogatives of class, race, and scripture.30


XII, 268
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (November)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2022. XII, 268 pp.

Biographical notes

John M. Heffron (Author)

John M. Heffron, Ph.D. is Professor of Educational History and Culture and Director of the MA Program in Educational Leadership and Societal Change at Soka University of America. He completed his doctorate in American history at the University of Rochester.


Title: The Rise of the South in American Thought and Education