Sunday, December 16, 2012

Reconstructing the Campus - Interview with Michael David Cohen

In doing research for my book, Notre Dame and the Civil War: Marching Onward to Victory (The History Press, 2010), the bulk of my research and writing was focused on the institution; but I also did a lot of background reading on the role of higher education during the Civil War years and the effect that the war had on colleges and universities, an that helped me include some discussion in the book about how Notre Dame's wartime challenges compared to other schools.

Even so, there was not much to draw on, apart from Willis Rudy's The Campus and a Nation in Crisis (FDU Press, 1996) and Robert Pace's Halls of Honor (LSU Press, 2004).  They are both excellent studies; still, Rudy studies conflicts from the American Revolution to Vietnam, devoting a single chapter to the Civil War and Pace concentrates on the antebellum experience of male's in southern institutions, with a single chapter on the wartime years.  (you can see my extended review of Halls of Honor here).

Fortunately, the dearth of scholarly attention to a comprehensive overview of the role of colleges in the war and the effect of the war on those schools has been remedied in the publication of Michael David Cohen's Reconstructing the Campus: Higher Education and the American Civil War (A Nation Divided: Studies in the Civil War Era, University of Virginia Press, 2012).

My review:

The book excels in its breadth of wartime college experience: male and female, northern and southern (and western), religious and secular, white and black, rich and poor, rural and urban, and more.  He illuminates these experiences through the stories of a handful (seven, actually) of well-chosen institutions as case studies.  It's easier, yet still interesting, to limit these stories to each institutions' students going off to war and the equally interesting disruption of campus life by the occupation of the armies, friendly or enemy, on the campuses, and the author accomplishes that well; but Cohen also goes much farther, which makes the book all the more interesting and important: he details, especially, the growing influence of the federal government in higher education policy, from militarization, to funding, to changes in curriculum to the "democratization" of educational opportunity across race, class, and geography.  He also chronicles the evolution of the antebellum "college" with its emphasis on a narrow course of study in the classics to the "university," as we recognize it today, with its specialization.  Throughout, he shows how the war accelerated changes already in progress or caused dramatic change in its own right.  The book will be of special interest to scholars specializing in the history of education, readers interested in the effects of the Civil War on social and policy history, and those interested in the history of those schools that receive special attention in the study: Harvard University and Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in Massachusetts, South Carolina College (later the University of South Carolina), Wesleyan Female College in Georgia, the University of Missouri, Cornell College in Iowa, and the College (later University) of California.

I want to thank University of Virginia Press for kindly providing a copy of the book for review.

Michael was kind enough to answer some questions about his book, his current position, and his future goals as a professional historian.

About Michael David Cohen (his UNT faculty page is here):

Michael David Cohen is a historian of the United States with particular interests in the nineteenth century, education, and politics. He received his bachelor's degree from Carleton College and his Ph.D. in history from Harvard University. Since 2009, he has been assistant research professor of history and assistant editor of the Correspondence of James K. Polk at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Reconstructing the Campus: Higher Education and the American Civil War is his first book.

The publisher description of the book:

The Civil War transformed American life. Not only did thousands of men die on battlefields and millions of slaves become free; cultural institutions reshaped themselves in the context of the war and its aftermath. The first book to examine the Civil War’s immediate and long-term impact on higher education, Reconstructing the Campus begins by tracing college communities’ responses to the secession crisis and the outbreak of war. Students made supplies for the armies or left campus to fight. Professors joined the war effort or struggled to keep colleges open. The Union and Confederacy even took over some campuses for military use.

Then moving beyond 1865, the book explores the war’s long-term effects on colleges. Michael David Cohen argues that the Civil War and the political and social conditions the war created prompted major reforms, including the establishment of a new federal role in education. Reminded by the war of the importance of a well-trained military, Congress began providing resources to colleges that offered military courses and other practical curricula. Congress also, as part of a general expansion of the federal bureaucracy that accompanied the war, created the Department of Education to collect and publish data on education. For the first time, the U.S. government both influenced curricula and monitored institutions.

The war posed special challenges to Southern colleges. Often bereft of students and sometimes physically damaged, they needed to rebuild. Some took the opportunity to redesign themselves into the first Southern universities. They also admitted new types of students, including the poor, women, and, sometimes, formerly enslaved blacks. Thus, while the Civil War did great harm, it also stimulated growth, helping, especially in the South, to create our modern system of higher education.

And, now, the best part - my interview with Michael!

Jim Schmidt (JS): Tell us a little about yourself, your education, and your career; why did you pursue history as a profession?

Michael David Cohen (MDC): I’ve always been fascinated by the men and women whose decisions shaped the past, especially the development of the United States. My family often traveled to historic sites when I was a child, and as I made my way through school (I got my B.A. at Carleton College and my Ph.D. at Harvard), I had the good fortune to study with excellent history teachers. I also came to wonder about the origins of the educational institutions in which Americans have put so much faith over the centuries. So I came to focus my research on the history of American education.

JS: What are some of the rewards and challenges of the Polk papers project?

MDC: Editing a historical figure’s letters is an exciting way to do history. Project director Tom Chaffin and I get to study every known surviving letter that James K. Polk wrote or received, working our way through each day of his presidency. Besides gaining an insight into the president himself, through this process we learn about a wide variety of subjects in antebellum U.S. history. Polk received letters from politicians, farmers, soldiers, male and female laborers, inventors, free blacks, abolitionists, and many others. He even got a letter, in 1847, signed “The Devil”: “Oh, you bloody hound of hell! You scorpion of the regions of the damned!” By publishing the most interesting, illuminating, and important of these letters, we enable scholars, students, and others interested in American history to access a rich collection of sources on many topics. We also save them the trouble of deciphering the less-than-perfect handwriting of many of Polk’s correspondents—a talent I’ve developed over the past few years. Next year the University of Tennessee Press will publish the twelfth volume of the Correspondence of James K. Polk, covering January to July 1847.

JS: The book arose from your dissertation – what was the inspiration for the research and who were some of your influences as historians?

MDC: I discovered that while historians of education had shown clearly that colleges went through major reforms around the time of the Civil War, they had not examined the war itself as a possible reason for the reforms. I decided to find out if it was. Among my most important influences as a historian are Nancy Cott, my advisor at Harvard, and other scholars with whom I worked there, including Julie Reuben and Susan O’Donovan. I’m also deeply indebted to the late Martin Trow, one of my undergraduate teachers, and Tom Chaffin, director of the Polk Project, both superb scholars and generous mentors.

JS: You point to a few previous books that discuss higher education and the Civil War, including two of my favorites – Willis Rudy's The Campus and a Nation in Crisis and Robert Pace's Halls of Honor; how does your book differ from them?  What was your thesis?

MDC: Several historians have looked at aspects of the Civil War’s impact on colleges. Most of these—including you in Notre Dame and the Civil War—have studied in depth the experiences of individual schools. Pace, in a chapter of his book on Southern antebellum student culture, looks at the war’s impact on that culture; Rudy, in a chapter of his book about wars and colleges, brings together Civil War stories from many colleges’ institutional histories. Drawing on all this good scholarship, along with my own primary research, I tell a broader story of how the war affected colleges throughout the country both during the years of conflict and in the longer term. I argue that the Civil War had two major types of effects on higher education. First, it led to a greater federal role, including the development of the first Department of Education and the seeds of the ROTC. Second, the war had a particularly strong impact in the South, sparking the development of the first true Southern universities.

JS: Did you settle quickly on the institutions you chose to focus on?  Were there others that didn’t "make the cut"? If so, why? Lack of archival materials, for example? On the other hand, do you think interested readers and scholars would be surprised at how much material is available for schools that were in place during the war?

MDC: I wanted to study the various types of colleges in 1861 (denominational and state-founded; men’s, women’s, and coeducational) and the key regions of the country (Northeast, Midwest, Far West, border states, and South). That way, I could compare the Civil War’s effects on colleges of different types and regions. To do this, I used national sources, such as almanacs and federal documents, where possible, but mostly focused on the stories of seven schools: Harvard University and Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in Massachusetts, South Carolina College (later the University of South Carolina), Wesleyan Female College in Georgia, the University of Missouri, Cornell College in Iowa, and the College (later University) of California. It didn’t take me long to choose them. Some colleges that I considered turned out not to have preserved many documents from the Civil War era (often due to a fire of long ago), but pretty quickly I identified these seven, all of which have excellent archives. Colleges are quite good about preserving their institutional memories, so those interested often can find records going back surprisingly far.

JS: You describe the changes in the standard "classical studies" college curriculum, with an emphasis on specialization and elective studies; do you think there was also a corresponding increase in professionalization of various careers (medicine, law, engineering, etc.), or did the universities drive that professionalization by preparing more qualified graduates?

MDC: In part as a result of the Civil War, colleges began adding on degree programs in medicine, law, engineering, teaching, agriculture, and other fields. Although some doctors and lawyers had gone to college for intellectual finishing before the war, this was the first time that many Americans could get the practical knowledge for various jobs in colleges—or, as they increasingly called themselves, universities—and leave with degrees that proved their competency. As more people took that route in the late nineteenth century, professions such as law and medicine began to expect degrees of their employees and thus become professionalized. It was only in the twentieth century, though, that enough employers in enough fields looked to hire college graduates that college became a typical route to professional success. The Civil War was the first stage in that shift.

JS: One of the greatest revelations to me in your reading your book was the genesis of the Department of Education and the "mission creep"- for good or ill - that happened very quickly; I think readers will be surprised that many of the same questions of local vs. state vs. federal control of education were being argued 150 years ago.  How and why did the war spur these new bureaucracies in education and in other areas of public life?

MDC: Before the Civil War, the federal government was small. Most people only encountered it through the post office; even the army was tiny. Once the southern states seceded, Abraham Lincoln and Congress needed to build a large army to restore the Union and a bureaucracy to supply that army. Then they created an income tax to fund the war and the Internal Revenue Bureau to collect the tax. After the war came the Freedmen’s Bureau to oversee former slaves’ transition to freedom, and a vastly expanded military pension program. As they grew the federal government to fight the war and deal with its aftermath, politicians came to believe that a stronger government could oversee and improve other areas of American life, such as agriculture, justice, and education—so they created a department for each of these. Some also worried that poor education had helped foment rebellion, so they turned to federal oversight to prevent a repetition.

JS: You refer to several individual studies of colleges during the Civil War (including a kind mention of my own book on Notre Dame.  Thank You!). There really seems to be an opening for more of these types of monographs; as an historian, what would you encourage historians, professional or avocational,to consider and include when researching and writing the stories of schools during the war?

MDC: Books such as Notre Dame and the Civil War offer in-depth looks at specific institutions’ experiences during the war. Because each school has its own story, and because each school that’s still around today has alumni and others with an interest in its history, it’s important to write more good books like yours. I would advise a potential author to keep in mind the broader historical context in which a college operated. How did national, regional, and locate debates about the war, education, and other issues affect the college? How was the college’s war experience part of larger trends? By drawing these connections, authors can best illuminate what their colleges were going through, and contribute to our understanding of the period as a whole.

JS: What would you point to as the single biggest change in higher education directly resulting from the Civil War.

MDC: The Civil War—as well as its political and social consequences—was one incredibly strong driver of change in a period when several factors were motivating educational reform. In my book I show how the war accelerated or reshaped some earlier trends while initiating other transformative changes. The single most important—and, perhaps, the most ironic—effect of the war on higher education was the development of the South’s first true universities. Owing to the physical and economic damage that the war brought to the South, educators and politicians decided to expend resources for the first time to build colleges into universities teaching a variety of academic and vocational subjects. As they did so, these universities attracted new types of students, including women, the poor, and sometimes African Americans. The changes were also physical: new schools of law, agriculture, and teaching meant new buildings going up on campus. This is the more literal of the meanings of my book’s title: they were physically reconstructing the campus.

JS: What are your future goals as a historian?  Are you working on any other book projects?

MDC: I’m looking forward to next year’s publication of the twelfth volume of the Correspondence of James K. Polk, and to continuing work on the final two volumes of the series. I have an article coming out in the New England Quarterly next year on a proslavery Connecticut man who wrote under the pseudonym “Amor PatriƦ.” But I’m still working on formulating my next book project. Stay tuned!

Thank you Michael!  Best wishes for continued success and inspiration as a historian and writer!

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