According to Michael David Cohen, “the Civil War was a watershed ” that accelerated significant changes in higher education in the North and inaugurated them in the South (p. 189). Before the war, Cohen familiarly finds collegiate schools nationally committed to a classical curriculum. Such instruction in the North largely served economic elites and produced lawyers, ministers, and physicians. Only a few schools had started developing engineering and scientific programs to attract students from more modest backgrounds who wanted employment other than in those professions. In the South, classical curricula additionally provided a class-identifying education for planters’ sons destined to succeed their fathers as proprietors of the plantation economy.
Upper-class northern and southern women might attend a female seminary that taught classics to educate them as socially acceptable wives for their similarly educated husbands. A smattering of northern women could be found in rare coeducational institutions. Coeducation was nonexistent for southern belles. Higher educational opportunities for northern African Americans barely existed. In slave states, even free blacks found no formal educational opportunities of any kind.
The Civil War changed higher education. It especially accelerated antebellum changes already occurring in the North. Wartime federal legislation that led to state agricultural and mechanical colleges placed emphasis on science and engineering, not classics. These disciplines attracted middle- and lower-class young men, thereby broadening the socioeconomic base of postbellum students who wanted employment in engineering and scientific fields. During the war, some schools that lost male students to military service turned to coeducation to compensate, thereby expanding opportunities for women and advancing a trend that continued after Appomattox. Opportunities [End Page 261] for African Americans, however, only modestly increased as racial barriers proved more difficult to break down.
The death of thousands of young southern men meant that for schools to survive they needed to expand beyond teaching planters’ sons. In order to attract more practically minded and economically diverse students, many southern institutions implemented elective systems that provided more curricular choices by adding engineering and scientific programs, and by doing so they created the South’s first authentic universities.
Coeducation made little headway in the South, however, and expensive women’s colleges continued to provide classical instruction to upper-class daughters. Only the growth in public schools, which hired women as teachers, eventually led to some coeducation and curricular reform for female students late in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
A very few Republican-controlled southern schools allowed African Americans integrated access to higher education during Reconstruction, and Democratic state legislatures quickly prohibited integrated schools as Reconstruction ended. Still, some opportunities for higher education, unthinkable before the war, emerged as northern philanthropy opened some institutions for blacks, and state legislatures grudgingly used federal land-grant money to support black as well as white agricultural and mechanical colleges.
Overall, Cohen provides a fine account of changes in higher education resulting from the war. Problematically, however, he exaggerates the impact of the war in creating postbellum “partnerships” between schools and the federal government, particularly through the Morrill Act (1862) that provided federal grants to states to establish agricultural and mechanical colleges but otherwise required little federal involvement. He especially overemphasizes the impact of the legislative mandate that military tactics be taught on these campuses, which he argues contributed to a supposed militarization of American society. This conclusion is doubtful given that the United States maintained one of the smallest military establishments [End Page 262] among industrializing nations on the eve of the Spanish-American War. Nonetheless, Cohen, through his expansive use of university archives, government documents, and secondary sources, provides a good and needed national look at higher education for a period that most accounts examine only regionally.
Dan R. Frost is the author of Thinking Confederates: Academia and the Idea of Progress in the New South (2000). He teaches history at Dillard University in New Orleans, Louisiana.