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Civil War History 49.2 (2003) 205-206

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Thinking Confederates: Academia and the Idea of Progress in the New South. By Dan R. Frost. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2000. Pp. 224. Cloth $27.00.)

Thinking Confederates traces the history of the idea of progress among southern academics. Dan R. Frost argues that, after the Civil War, Confederates turned educators, promoted scientific learning, supported the Lost Cause, and envisioned a future with Southerners participating in the era of progress. The academics failed to convince their white Southern brethren of the benefits of scientific curricula and of progress as an ideal, but they did inspire the subsequent generation of educators to support their beliefs. Frost brings home the point that antebellum ideas of progress and education permeated postwar conceptions.

Frost describes the academics as "progressivists," part of the minority of Southern society who viewed technology as a means for the material and spiritual improvement of the South. The opening chapter establishes that antebellum advocates of progress and innovation in education, specifically manual labor schools where students learned applied skills, failed because secondary education remained dedicated to classical curricula. The book follows Southern progressivist academics from Jefferson's University of Virginia in the early republic through others' failures to modernize the state universities in the antebellum period. In the prewar years, academics promoted "home education" to keep Southern boys at schools in the South and created military academies with applied science programs. Frost asserts that these attempts by individual progressivists evinced little far-reaching success but laid the foundation for educational reform in the New South.

The Civil War caused the progressivists to enter the Confederate army or train soldiers for the fight. After the war's end, educators returned to their careers and soldiers like Robert E. Lee, who headed Washington College before it became Washington and Lee University, entered teaching and administration. According to Frost, the former Confederates theorized that they lost the Civil War because of the South's failure to create the necessary technology, which stemmed from the lack of scientific content in Southern schooling. Here, Frost adds to the growing body of scholarship on the construction of the Lost Cause. Frost's academics, however, looked to the future and hoped to establish a New South based on technology and the applied sciences. They located the key to revitalizing the South in increasing the scientific training in Southern secondary education. Their conception of progress encompassed "Providence, the Lost Cause, Anglo-Saxonism, national reconciliation, and the inevitable progress of the New South" through education (109). These ideals they passed onto their students who became the next generation of academics. [End Page 205]

The second generation became Progressives and, for example, accepted women's education. These Progressive academics dismissed their teachers, erasing the progressivist impulse because of its failure. Frost reorients the focus of New South education onto the antebellum generation that served the Confederacy and inspired the later generation. New South academics, represented by the historian of southern education Charles W. Dabney, slighted their predecessors. Frost asserts that the second generation actually "appropriated as [its] own the progressivist vision" of its teachers (111). Unfortunately, the quick consideration of the second generation of postwar academics fails to allow a full exploration of that generation.

One of the strengths of the book is its narrow focus that allows the nuances in the academics' thought about progress to come forward. Frost's argument is engaging and credible, but the book's brevity and reliance on the academics' papers and institutional records stress the role of individuals, such as Louisiana State University's David French Boyd, rather than trends. The idea of progress is restricted to academia, and the academics and their ideas generally appear unconnected to the Southern, or national, population. For example, the passage of the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 plays no part in Frost's interpretation, whether an indication of the progressivists' success or of national movements. Frost provides much good evidence and many on-point quotations, but at times, the evidence merits...


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