Civil War Memory and Education: Entering the 20th Century

            With the signing of the Constitution, those who would later become known as the ‘Founding Fathers’ knew they were placing a great responsibility in the hands of American citizens through the creation of a democratic republic. Thomas Jefferson went on to root his legacy in the field of education through the creation of the University of Virginia, hoping that this institution would provide future Americans with the means to become proper citizens equipped with everything necessary to guide their own futures. Initially, there were contentions over how to approach education as a means of preserving the republic: was there a need to educate the public as a means of safeguarding against elites who would corrupt government and political power to serve themselves (as those such as Jefferson suggested), or was there a need to educate the public as a means of cultivating leaders while also seeking to calm or control a self-interested and fickle public?[1] However, while ideological differences over institutionalized education were only getting started, it became clear that “over the course of the eighteenth century, more and more people came to believe that children were born neither good nor bad but were malleable. Developing adults therefore required proper socialization and education. Creating the right kind of schools took on a heightened importance because external influences shaped inner character.”[2]

            What exactly is meant by the right kind of schools? Johann Neem argues that the types of schools that took shape in the United States were ‘democracy’s schools.’ He goes on to explain this by saying that America’s schools were “democracy’s schools in four important ways: they were local in origin; they promoted a curriculum designed to prepare people for citizenship and self-culture; disagreements over public schools become a part of democratic politics; and citizens struggled to balance the needs of the broader community with the rights of religious and other minorities in a diverse society.”[3] Through this frame of reference, a larger picture of the American education system comes into focus – one where it can be seen as an active and institutionalized means of creating the nation’s culture by shaping the minds and understanding of future generations.

            When the United States found itself at war in 1861, very few could have predicted how long the struggle for defining the Nation’s history and culture would continue after the fighting stopped. What Americans would later come to realize is that education and the fight over historical memory can perhaps be just as important in shaping their culture and society through times of peace as the resultant conditions brought by times of war.

[1] Johann Neem, Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America Baltimore, (Maryland: John Hopkins University Press, 2017) 8.

[2] Ebd, 24

[3] Ebd, 2.