Reconstructing the Campus: Higher Education and the American Civil War by Michael David Cohen (review)
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Reconstructing the Campus: Higher Education and the American Civil War. Michael David Cohen. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0-8139-3317-7, 288 pp., cloth, $45.00.

Countless monographs offer a look at the changes the Civil War introduced and exacerbated in America, so it is refreshing to read a title that examines the period from a new perspective. Historians have generally overlooked the impact the Civil War and Reconstruction had on colleges and universities, and in Reconstructing the Campus, Michael David Cohen persuasively demonstrates how these institutions adopted a variety of features now integral to American higher education, from their overall missions to their daily activities and operations. Cohen relies [End Page 179] on government documents and college and university archival records to highlight these reforms from their military, social, economic, and political contexts. While it incorporates figures, policies, statistics, and anecdotes from several of the 123 institutions listed in one 1861 almanac, the study narrows its focus by constructing seven case studies of institutions that best represent these reforms. Offering a mix of public and private institutions and geographical locations, this sample includes Harvard University and Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, South Carolina College, Wesleyan Female College in Georgia, Cornell College in Iowa, the University of Missouri, and the College of California. In studying this eclectic group of institutions along with their faculty and student populations and their respective curricula and protocols, Cohen highlights two significant and overarching changes during this period: strengthened relationships with the government, and with their respective regional communities.

The opening chapter stresses the struggles of most institutions to maintain enrollment numbers and continue their operations as students and faculty alike left to join the war effort. While some institutions closed, many others adapted to their communities’ needs, functioning as military installations, hospitals, hotels, or even factories. After facing serious damage to their buildings during the war, southern institutions, in particular, needed the most rebuilding and therefore saw the greatest change in curriculum and student populations. Schools opened their doors to both women and African Americans; for South Carolina College, the admission of black students triggered the mass departure of white students. By expanding curricula, institutions also broadened their admissions to local populations and middle-class men. Some of Cohen’s most compelling passages are those glimpses and brief anecdotes that extend beyond the seven schools that serve as his focal point. In one short episode, he notes Robert E. Lee’s mission as president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, to expand scientific, professional, and practical programs and course offerings, including schools of agriculture, civil and mining engineering, business, applied mathematics and chemistry, and printing and journalism. Unfortunately, these are very concise descriptions and do not expand into the larger implications regarding the roles of the president and administration, alumni, and philanthropists, the changing culture of campuses themselves, or, a bit more philosophically, the shifting definitions of what counts as knowledge at these institutions.

Cohen’s strongest argument is his examination of the Morrill Land Grant College Act, which by 1879 had funded and established forty-three colleges. Cohen notes that “as the federal government grew increasingly powerful and attentive to many aspects of American life, it partnered with colleges in ways that related more to education and that benefited both the colleges and the government” (53). [End Page 180] Initially a product of war—it originally focused on military instruction—the act evolved into the mechanism through which both curriculum and admissions were reformed and, Cohen believes, propelled changes in higher education necessary to meet the demands of modernity. It denoted a new relationship between colleges and the government and is linked to the creation of the Department of Education following the war. During this time, colleges also created new ties with their surrounding communities. Some universities held public lectures directed specifically to working professions and trades, some created museums and opened their libraries and collections to the public, and others worked directly with local charities and offered practical services. In a time when higher education is deeply invested in community outreach and service learning, scholars and professionals alike will find Cohen’s chapter on...