- Education and the Creation of Capital in the Early American Republic
Education, Institutional history, Social capital, Education history
Like many scholarly books, this one began as a dissertation, although it took longer to be published than might be expected. As a graduate student at Syracuse University in the 1980s, Nancy Beadie ventured into the university's archives where she discovered the collection that would become the basis for her book. Established in 1870, Syracuse traces its origins to Genesee Wesleyan Seminary (GWS), an academy that was founded in Lima, New York in 1832. Institutional histories occupy an established albeit undistinguished place in the historiography of American education, but this book is not an institutional history. Far from it! Rather, it is a nuanced analysis of the role that church and school played in the economic, social, and political development of western New York in the first half of the nineteenth century. The breadth of its research and the depth of its scholarship justifies the many years its author devoted to it.
The book's argument revolves around the concept of social capital, an idea most often associated with the work of social scientists like Theda Skocpol, Robert Putnam, Claudia Goldin, and Lawrence Katz. They have argued that a community's wealth derives not just from its economic assets but also from its social relationships. To make the most of their property, knowledge, and skills, a community's members must trust one another. They must associate closely to leverage their assets. Applying this concept to her topic, Beadie argues that "the economic significance of schooling in the rural North during the early republican era lay not in [End Page 701] the production of human or intellectual capital but in the creation and mobilization of social capital and its conversion into political capital for the modern liberal state" (320).
Comprising eighteen chapters and a conclusion, the book is divided into three parts. The first examines the history of churches and schools in and around Lima, a farming town and trading center on the Genesee Road about halfway between Buffalo and Syracuse. Beadie ascribes a significant role to the area's Methodists—both lay and clerical—who facilitated the development of the friendships and trust upon which social capital rests. For example, Methodist women, who were well connected but legally indigent, drew upon their husbands' wealth to build potent social networks. They marshaled their households' surplus labor and capital on behalf of collective activities like schools, which themselves provided an alternative mode of association, building bonds among the churched and the unchurched.
In part two Beadie devotes much of her attention to the relationship between political and social capital, arguing that without the latter there would not have been enough of the former to bring about the expansion of schooling in rural New York. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, school attendance there was occasional and intermittent. Some children almost never attended. The educational marketplace was diversified; those wanting a formal education could choose among private teachers, local academies, and town schools. Academies depended heavily on voluntary contributions made in the form of subscriptions that could be fulfilled in kind or cash. In return, subscribers received tuition benefits for their children or preferential treatment when the school bought goods and services on the local market. The social capital that resulted from these reciprocal relationships helped academies like the one in Lima stay in business. More importantly, it built a network of popular support for schooling that politicians like DeWitt Clinton could draw upon when they responded to rising enrollments by proposing that New York make regular contributions to both basic and higher education.
The history of GWS occupies most of Beadie's attention in the book's third part. As a local institution, it proved to be a powerful force for community development. As a project of the Methodist Church, it was able to draw upon this denomination's special capacity for building social and political networks. These...