- Education and the Creation of Capital in the Early American Republic by Nancy Beadie
In the 1960s, historians began to re-write the history of American education. The triumphalist narrative of public education as the engine of democracy made little sense when set beside the persistence of racial segregation, inequalities, unwieldy bureaucracies, and educational failures that characterized urban school systems. What explained these features and outcomes? To answer the question, [End Page 785] historians went back to the nineteenth century origins of public education and unearthed evidence which linked them to race, class, urban growth, and capitalist development. For a variety of reasons, after the initial flurry of interest in the origins of public education, attention shifted toward later time periods. By the end of the 1970s, interest in both class and bureaucracy and the years before the Civil War had largely faded from writing on educational history.
Recently, welcome signs of a revived interest in antebellum American education have emerged. The two major examples are Hilary Moss’s superb reinterpretation of the relations between race and the origins of public education, Schooling Citizens: The Struggle for African American Education in Antebellum America (2009), and Nancy Beadie’s subtle and masterful Education and the Creation of Capital in the Early American Republic, an exploration of the links between capital and education from the late eighteenth century until about 1840. Both books return to the social history method at the core of the first wave of the new histories of education which emerged nearly a half century ago. That is, they use deeply researched, richly contextualized case histories—in Moss’s case three cities, in Beadie’s one town in New York—as the base from which to move outward to broad interpretations. Beadie documents her interpretation with an array of sources from manuscript censuses and tax rolls to town documents and personal papers. The research is thorough and imaginative.
Unlike the earlier historians of antebellum education, Beadie does not write about the origins of public education systems, that is, the beginnings of free, tax-supported schools supervised by public officials. In fact, she appropriately complicates the meaning of “public.” Early schools in Lima, New York, broadly available to the community, were supported with money and in-kind labor from a variety of sources including tuition, donations (commonly called subscriptions), loans, and money from the state.
Beadie’s story culminates with the founding and early years of Genesee Wesleyan Seminary, an exemplar of academies, the institutions that offered most of the available secondary education before the founding of public high schools. Academies cannot be labeled accurately as either private or public in our modern sense. Rather, academies, as Beadie explains, rested on a corporate organizational model thought by many people at the time to represent the most appropriate form for the expansion of education as well as business. Beadie stops her story before the rejection of the corporate model (what in work not cited by Beadie I have labeled corporate voluntarism) as the template for the future of public education.
Beadie’s major contribution is her discussion of capital and its relation to the development of education. In most interpretations the causal arrow goes from capitalist development to education; Beadie reverses the arrow, or, rather, has it moving both ways, showing not only how the development of capital influenced education but, also, how education itself was a source of capital. Beadie decomposes capital into social, financial, and political and illustrates both their interactions and intersection with the founding and early history of the Genesee Seminary as well as, by implication, other education institutions of the time.
Beadie is the first scholar to place Robert Putnam’s idea of social capital at the center of an interpretation of the history of education. She adopts Putnam’s definition of social capital as “the features of social organization, such as trust, norms, and networks, that improve the efficiency of society by facilitating [End Page 786] coordinated actions” (33, quoting Putnam). Initially, she...