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Education in the South

ISSUE:  Spring 1937

Universal Education in the South. By Charles William Dabney. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. Two Volumes. $7.50.

The Southern States during their long history have been the scene of many movements of significance. None have been more momentous than the struggle to give to the people of those states that priceless possession, education. Jefferson, the greatest leader and wisest man who has yet arisen in the South, saw in popular education the indispensable condition of freedom and good government, and made it the heart and center of the great body of reform which he proposed to Virginia. Ever since his day there have been devoted souls who gave themselves unstintedly, without thought of self-interest, to the effort to bring his dream—and theirs—to some sort of realization. No movement in the history of the South has been so free from the taint of selfishness, personal ambition, or greed as the movement to bring the opportunity to youth that education offers.

A history of the movements and personalities in such a struggle by a man for many years a close student of educational history, and himself an active and important participant as a leader in the later phases of it, gives promise of great interest. No outsider, no matter how painstaking and exhaustive may be his investigation, can ever give to such a story the inside information, the vividness of narration and interpretation, the authority, furnished by one who was in the thick of the fight. It is true that the participant may not see the battle as a whole, his judgments may be warped, and, after the lapse of years, his recollection may have failed in certain respects. Fortunately none of these things is true in the case of Charles William Dabney’s “Universal Education in the South.” As an interested observer of Dr. Dab-ney at work, during the whole period of writing this work, I can testify to the scrupulous care with which he fortified his recollection by sources of undoubted authority and filled in the gaps of his own personal knowledge by the most exhaustive investigation. And so, with his personal knowledge of the details of the movement for Southern education from the ‘eighties on, his intimate acquaintance with all the leading figures, he is finally equipped for the large task to which he has devoted himself for some years past. He was at the very heart of the Southern educational movement, which was practically a revolution, and knows its history as no other living man.

The first volume begins with Jefferson’s plan of popular education and carries the story to 1900. With the author’s explanation of the origin of Jefferson’s educational ideas I am compelled to disagree, for there is no evidence whatever that Jefferson at that time had any acquaintance with French thinking on either education or politics. His political thinking was purely Anglo-Saxon; the best explanation of his educational theories is that education of the people was necessary to translate his political theories into practical fulfilment.

This volume deals with the obstacles to popular education in the ante-bellum South, such as ruralism, the sparse and scattered population, and social cleavage; the rise of academies; and the work of such educational leaders as David Caldwell, Samuel Eusebius McCorkle, James Hall, and Moses Waddel. Separate chapters describe the contribution of Hampden-Sydney and Washington Colleges and the work of Henry Ruffner and General Lee, the establishment of the Peabody Fund, and the labors of Sears and Curry. The rest of the volume deals with the story of education in each of the states to 1900. Great attention is paid to the men who carried the torch, and the judgments of the author respecting those he knew personally, even if warmed somewhat by admiration and affection, constitute a valuable contribution to historical knowledge. The list is too long to quote. John B. Minor, the Ruffners, Benjamin M. Smith, Murphey, Wiley, Mclver, Alderman, Aycock, Thornwell, Memminger, Carlisle, Hugh S. Thompson, Hill, Branson, Peers, Breckinridge, Lindsley, Eaton, the Tutwilers, Buch-holz, Dimitry, Johnston, the Boyds, are examples. In discussing Negro education, particular attention is paid to the work of Anmstrong, Frissell, Washington, and Moton.

In all the states of the ante-bellum South movements were directed to popular education, but North Carolina alone had achieved an organized state system. Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Louisiana each looked towards one, and all had made progress. In Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia, the doctrine and establishment of “indigent schools” opposed insuperable obstacles to popular education. Dr. Dab-ney agrees with Knight and other writers, however, that in most of the states the post-bellum system was a native product.

The second volume deals with the Conference for Education in the South, its various meetings and its results, Robert C. Ogden, “the ideal man to lead this crusade for an idea,” the organization of the Southern Education Board and its work, the General Education Board which grew out of it, the Summer School of the South, teacher training, vocational schools, boys’ and girls’ clubs, rural schools, educational campaigns in each state, the coming of the high schools, tenancy in relation to education, and the work of the Jeanes, Phelps-Stokes, Slater, and Rosenwald Funds. Figures that loom in the story are George Foster Peabody, Murphy, Buttrick, Rose, Knapp, Page, Claxton, Dillard, Mclver, Mrs. Breckinridge, and, in spite of his modesty, Charles W. Dabney.

I have given here merely an abbreviated summary of the contents of a most enlightening, stimulating, and heartening book. But I trust I have said enough to show that Dr. Dabney has written a striking story of a thrilling battle—one which still goes on—to give to every person in the South the opportunity through education to acquire the knowledge that brings freedom.


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