- Reconstructing the Campus: Higher Education and the American Civil War by Michael David Cohen
Reconstructing the Campus is a focused study of institutional change in American higher education during the “long Civil War,” from 1861 until the end of Reconstruction in 1877. Its findings, based on case studies of seven diverse schools (Harvard, the University of California, Cornell College, Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, the University of Missouri, the University of South Carolina, and Wesleyan Female College), offer a portrait of change on a national scale, tracing the impact of war on each institution as well as the growing presence of the federal government in American higher education. In every region of the country, Cohen argues, the war transformed what colleges taught, whom they enrolled, and how they conceived of their obligations to community, state, and nation. Yet in no region of the country was the war’s impact more dramatic than in the South, where the destructiveness of war and the politics of Reconstruction rendered some institutions unrecognizable from their antebellum form. Like the young men who fought for the Union [End Page 278] or the Confederacy, most Civil War colleges and universities were forced to confront their own mortality; institutional survival became the impetus for lasting reform.
The book is organized into five chronological and topical chapters, a welcome design that allows Cohen to synthesize his wide-ranging research into a broader historical narrative. The first four chapters describe the experiences of colleges and universities during wartime, as well as changes in curriculum and admissions (two chapters) that developed in the war’s aftermath. During the war, as students left campuses to enlist, private donations dwindled, and some campuses were seized or appropriated for military use. Many institutions faced the prospect of closure. When the fighting subsided, these schools had to find a way to win back students—and their tuition revenue. Most did so by creating, with the support of the federal government, a more “practical” curriculum based on training in agriculture, engineering, and military preparedness, and by lowering barriers to admission for middle-class and poor students, women, and, in fewer cases, students of color. Within a generation, wartime innovations had revealed the foundations of modern higher education: “multicollegiate universities, practical curricula, military training, more diverse student populations, expanded financial aid, closer relationships with governments, and outreach to the local and national communities” (17).
In the final chapter, “College, Community, and Nation,” Cohen elucidates his central claim—that the development of modern higher education was integral to the rise of the modern bureaucratic state. Highlighting recent work by Nemec and Hoffer, Cohen argues that the Civil War marked the beginning of a lasting partnership between higher education and the federal government, centered on the collection of information and bureaucratic regulation.1 Universities and their faculties provided intellectual authority for legions of experts in new federal regulatory agencies, including the Bureau of Education. In return, federal largesse afforded opportunities for professors and institutions to serve their country and increase their visibility.
Reconstructing the Campus prefigures, if it does not directly address, a range of themes in the social, cultural, and political history of the United States in the late nineteenth century. Nonetheless, Cohen could have drawn brighter lines between elements of his story and pressing topics in American history and educational policy, particularly with regard to the implications of university–state collaboration about issues ranging from notions of citizenship to questions of educational access and equity. Unfortunately, Cohen did not have the opportunity to make use of recent work by Christopher Loss, Between Citizens and the State (Princeton, [End Page 279] 2012), about the relationship between higher education and the federal government during the twentieth-century. Moreover, Cohen explores only in a limited way the sometimes paradoxical connection between expanded educational access and increasing stratification in higher education, a topic explored by Scott Gelber in his history of the Populist movement and American higher education—The University and the People (Madison, 2011). Nevertheless, Cohen’s study is a valuable...