Schooling in the Antebellum South: The Rise of Public and Private Education in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama by Sarah L. Hyde (review)
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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) 212pp. $42.50

Hyde has produced a well-researched and clearly written history of education and schooling in the Gulf States before the Civil War. Too often, she claims, scholars have overlooked the extent to which southerners valued education. By 1860, the three Gulf States had mandated state systems of public schools for white children, reflecting a wider regional commitment to intellectual improvement. Schooling in the Antebellum South argues that, contrary to the writings of many historians of education, white citizens in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama embraced learning.

Historians of education have eclectic research interests. Most of them study institutions such as schools while some focus on the wider sources of learning. Hyde explores both formal and informal arenas of [End Page 280] instruction in the antebellum South, confirming some well-known themes. The wealthiest families, including the planter class, often hired tutors and sent their daughters to privately run academies and their sons to college. Middle-class families also patronized academies, which were sometimes subsidized by state government. Moreover, white parents from various social backgrounds frequently taught their children basic literacy at home. In rural areas, pupils sometimes attended one-room schools; in certain towns and cities, the poorer children attended charity schools. New Orleans was exceptional in this respect. Influenced by New England’s example of tax-supported education, the city received national acclaim for its (all-white) public schools. Compared with urban centers, the countryside had a weaker tax base and scattered settlement, but school enrollments in the Gulf States grew over time, reinforcing Hyde’s thesis regarding southern support for education.

Schooling in the Antebellum South explores the rise of schools and the varied experiences of pupils in rural and urban settings. As Kaestle emphasized in his influential scholarship about the origins of public schools, northern educational activists before the Civil War urged rural citizens to emulate towns and cities.1 Hyde discovered a similar dynamic in the Gulf States. Urban-based reformers, whether in Boston or New Orleans, Philadelphia or Natchez, championed the leading innovations of the day—age-graded classrooms, uniform text books, and high schools. Adopting these reforms in rural communities without a dense concentration of pupils proved challenging if not impossible, a common problem throughout the nation and especially in the South.

Although she acknowledges that the Gulf States’ investment in public school systems lagged behind that of the North, Hyde demonstrates that key southerners championed a well-funded, comprehensive system, albeit exclusively for white children. Governors in the Gulf States generally supported greater financial support for public schools, but legislators frequently rejected it, especially after the Panic of 1837 emptied state coffers. Governors invoked claims, often heard in the North, that ignorance and freedom were incompatible, that the republic’s survival rested on an informed citizenry, and that public schools were essential. Although the evidence is murky, Hyde asserts that “Jacksonian democracy” strongly motivated whites to champion public schools. Aware of the greater educational advantages available in cities, rural residents demanded the same treatment. But if all of this enthusiasm was real, why did legislators often fail to raise taxes for schools when economic conditions allowed or to approve binding laws to fund and maintain them? Did the fear of slave revolts and the specter of a rising abolitionist movement temper their support for schools? How did the idea of white supremacy shape the ideology of the champions and opponents of public schools? [End Page 281]

Hyde based her study on an impressive array of archival sources—diaries, manuscript collections, and school and legislative records. She brings to life the experiences of school children poring over their lessons, attending public examinations, and confiding in their diaries. Schooling in the Antebellum South exaggerates its claim that historians too often ignore how much southerners embraced learning and education. Nor does New England hold the center of attention among historians of education as it did a generation ago. But Hyde rightly reminds readers that education occurs in a variety of settings...


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