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The Rise of the South in American Thought and Education

The Rockefeller Years (1902-1917) and Beyond


John M. Heffron

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.

“Heffron shatters familiar narratives of white supremacy in the shaping of a nation. His authoritative literature surveys enable significant contributions, but he gives readers more. Using education as his lens lets him bare depths of America’s ‘original sin’ and its costs. Losses overlapped regions and races in forming a stubbornly dysfunctional culture that cast doubt on the reform neutrality of philanthropy, big business, and science. The lessons proved hard to learn.” —Donald Warren, University of Indiana Bloomington

“What shall we do about the ‘backwards’ South? One of the enduring myths of American life—and, too often, of American historians—is that the South lags behind, especially when it comes to education. But as Heffron shows, Southerners pioneered practices and themes that the rest of the country would eventually embrace. Hardly the caboose of progress, as Northerners imagined, the South was often its engine. If you want to track the development of American education, in a fresh and fascinating way, read this bold and original book. It will take you to places you hadn’t imagined.” —Jon Zimmerman, University of Pennsylvania

“In this important book, Heffron upends the received narrative of a triumphant North reforming the South in the years after the Civil War, showing how Northern industrialists drew on the Southern tradition as a model for the nation in the late nineteenth century. He demonstrates how the most powerful force in national school reform during this era—the General Education Board lavishly funded by the Rockefellers—promoted a Dixie-based model of progressive schooling that featured vocationalism, racial and ethnic paternalism, class hierarchy, and traditional religious values. The result was a triumph of Southern culture rising from the ashes of military defeat.” —David F. Labaree, author of A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education