As promised in my earlier blog post, here is more on how Southern women were educated.
Elementary and High School for Southern Women
One educational historian writes, "Despite the existence of slavery..., the first fifty years of the United States was as close to a libertarian society as has ever existed. For education, it meant complete freedom and diversity. There were no accrediting agencies, no regulatory boards, no state textbook selection committees, no teacher certification requirements. Parents had the freedom to choose whatever kind of school or education they wanted for their children. Home tutoring was common and there were private schools of every sort and size: church schools, academies for college preparation, seminaries, dames’ schools for primary education, charity schools for the poor, tutors, and common schools."
The South continued this tradition of educational freedom even after the North began experimenting with mandatory public schooling. Therefore, a Confederate girl’s elementary and high school education was acquired via three primary methods. (a) Home education with parents or a live-in tutor being the primary instructor, (b) a local school run by the community, (c) or a boarding school. Some girls were educated with just one of these methods – some were educated via a combination of all three. A few, but growing, number of girls then went on to attend college as well.
Home education – As the modern homeschooling movement proves, this is a very effective and reliable method of education. Studies have consistently shown that even when parents do minimal amounts of teaching, children still thrive in home education.
A southern social commentator of 1860 wrote this in his book, Social Relations in Our Southern States, "The men are not all fools yet, and they know that woman’s one sole Inalienable Right, is to be a Teacher; for whatever may be said in praise of Public, or Free, or High, or Select schools, or any other kind of school, we maintain there is one greater and more praiseworthy that these all, for it is God’s school, and is called The Family."
Almost all children in the Victorian era received some form of home education, at least in their early years. Parents, older siblings, a maiden aunt or a local pastor often were the primary instructors for things like reading, writing, basic arithmetic, religion, and life skills like sewing and housekeeping. Some women never had, or needed, more than this level of instruction. Particularly if the girl's instructor was well-educated, she would have a firm foundation in all the basic academic subjects and any further information she required in her life would be easily obtained through more study on her own.
Local school – A community-run local school generally only opened during those times of year when the children's presence was not required at home. Thus, school was generally closed during planting, cultivating and harvest time. Census data from 1870 shows that an average attendance for a child in an institutional school per year was about 3 months.
Local schools were as diverse as the communities that ran them. Some schools were simply a man, woman or couple who opened their home to instruction of local children. Some of these institutions were charity schools for the poor and were run by local churches or groups of concerned citizens. Usually anyone who needed to use a local school was financially able to do so, either through their own means or through the help of a charitable neighbor or community fund.
At the entry level were dame schools, subscription schools, or neighborhood schools – institutions that would cover basic three R’s and a bit of history and geography.
The next level of local school was often called a French school, since this was the primary reason for the parents to send their children to it. These French schools usually included needlework, dancing, handwriting and some academic subjects as part of the curriculum as well. These schools offered a course often referred to as Polite Education. In other words, young ladies learned polish and deportment in their manners as well as their skills. The age range for these schools was usually about 10 to 12.
And finally, the highest level of local school was generally referred to as an academy or seminary. These academies were either a girl's highest level of formal education or else her college preparation. Subjects often covered were handwriting, grammar, history, geography, music, dancing, drawing, needlework, and French. The age range was anywhere from 12 to 15.
Boarding school – Boarding schools might be either the French school level or academy level. They were often used as "finishing schools" for young ladies. In other words, once a girl had learned the basics at home of reading, writing, arithmetic, and so on, she attended a boarding school to finish her higher education. Boarding schools were obviously patronized by the more wealthy people since it cost more to board a student away from home. Boarding schools were often considered not only a way for a young lady to gain polish, but also a chance to network and form relations with other families of her social standing.
College for Southern Women
The South was the nation’s leader in women's college education. One source observes that the South "far outdistanced the rest of the nation in the founding of female colleges. One scholar claims that between 1850 and 1859 thirty-two of the thirty-nine chartered female colleges were in the South. According to statistics presented by Gov. John Ellis in 1860, North Carolina had thirteen female colleges and just six male colleges. Georgia had at least ten female colleges; Tennessee had five. Of the Southern states only Florida had no female colleges. In addition to Alabama’s female colleges, the Alabama Female Institute in Tuscaloosa arranged for students to attend mathematics and natural science lectures at the University of Alabama in 1833 and for a few years thereafter, foreshadowing the institution of coordinate colleges like Radcliffe and Barnard in the latter part of the century."
The college age range was typically 12 to 18, though the more rigorous colleges preferred students starting around 14-15 years old.
All youth, male and female, studied three basic branches of study: English, arithmetic and geography. But those three branches covered quite a range of subjects.
English covered all of the language skills necessary to function in 1800s society. Reading, writing, spelling, orthography, grammar, composition, handwriting, speaking, diction, logic, oratory and rhetoric. Consider that society in the 1800s functioned without computers, typewriters, spellcheckers, copiers, printers, radio, television or telephone. In other words, any type of communication, household or business, had to be via your own spoken or written word. Therefore it was crucial to have a thorough knowledge of how to use the English language with precision and propriety. Your livelihood and credit could literally depend on your ability to make yourself properly understood.
Arithmetic covered the basic math skills necessary for keeping household accounts and running a business. Some students went on to study higher math in high school and college. Algebra, trigonometry and calculus studies were all available in the 1800s, though more men than women pursued these studies as necessary for their vocations.
Geography is the third major branch of education in the 1800s and it comprised a variety of topics depending on the person defining it. History, physics, botany, geology, meteorology, medicine, astronomy, chemistry, and zoology were all at times listed under the heading of geography.
These three branches were the basic foundation of education. However, many more subjects were studied by the well-rounded female student of the 1800s.
Languages often learned by young ladies were French, German, Italian or Spanish. Hebrew was considered difficult and generally pursued by more men than women. But nearly everyone had at least an exposure level to Latin and Greek, since those were two of the languages in which the Bible was first written and translated into. Latin and Greek were also considered important since those were the languages of the Roman empire. The United States were founded on classical republican principles and it was considered good education for American students to study the classical era for this reason.
Needlework was a crucial skill for women in the 1800s. Regardless of your social status, a basic knowledge of sewing was required to function in 1800s society. It is interesting to note the many kinds of needlework that could be learned. One girls' school catalog in Virginia in 1772 explained the types of needlework and artwork that would be taught: "Petit Point in Flowers, Fruit, Landscapes, and Sculpture, Nuns Work, Embroidery in Silk, Gold, Silver, Pearls or embossed, Shading of all Kinds, in the various Works in Vogue, Dresden Point Work, Lace Ditto, Catgut in different Modes, flourishing Muslin after the newest Taste, and most elegant Pattern, Waxwork in Figure, Fruit, or Flowers, Shell Ditto, or grotesque, Painting in Water Colours and Mezzo tinto; also the art of taking off Foliage, with several other Embellishments."
Drawing, painting and other artistic skills were highly valued since most artwork in the home and church was created by the women. One author pointed out, "In eighteenth-century America such art as women produced was likely to be the only art available in the home and as such it had an invaluable place in adding form and beauty to otherwise plain surroundings. Many women found fulfillment and satisfaction in the decorative arts, and the high quality of some of their work is evident in those few pieces that have found their way into museums."
Music was another valued skill in the 1800s. Again, we in our modern culture of radio, television, CD players, iPods, and city and school orchestra programs often forget that most 1800s music was created by people themselves. Someone then who could sing and play the piano or guitar was highly appreciated in homes and community gatherings.
So what is the conclusion of all this? That southern ladies were far more educated than we have been led to think. Testifying to this are the many women’s educational institutions, the many well-written female diaries and journals, and the many stunning pieces of artwork and needlework surviving to this day.
But even more telling is another obvious fact. During the War Between the States, southern society continued to operate in an orderly and well-run fashion – in the absence of the men. In other words, the businesses, the plantations, the homes and churches were all being run in large part by the women! The fact that business and culture continued to operate in an orderly manner is a fascinating testimony to the educational level of the women of the South.
So why do we care?
British statesman Edmund Burke declared, "Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it." If we merely talk about our history and don’t learn from its lessons, we are in danger of repeating mistakes made by our ancestors. I don’t want this blog to be merely an interesting academic exercise. I want to consider what we can learn from this study of women’s education in the South. Several thoughts occur to me.
Education cannot be separated from your religious worldview. As I touched on in my previous blog entry on education, the Northern religious viewpoint of man perfecting himself by his own effort conflicted with the Southern understanding of each man’s need to personally receive grace from God to improve himself. This led to an entirely different understanding of how education should be given. Those who say we must keep religion out of classrooms fail to understand that one’s religious worldview – even if it's atheism – influences all educational efforts.
Formal or institutional education does not guarantee better education. This is a point that is being proven all over again by the modern homeschooling movement. Knowledge can be gained as easily outside the classroom as inside of it – and sometimes more accurately. A well-schooled individual does not necessarily imply a well-educated individual. Education can happen in any setting.
And finally, state-controlled education is the tool of those who want to subjugate nations. Social philosopher Hannah Arendt said, "The aim of totalitarian education has never been to instill convictions but to destroy the capacity to form any." Karl Marx insisted that in order to convert a society to socialism, "The education of all children, from the moment that they can get along without a mother's care, shall be in state institutions." Horace Mann, the northerner called the father of the mandatory public school movement observed, "We who are engaged in the sacred cause of education are entitled to look upon all parents as having given hostages to our cause."
We should take this as a solemn warning for our times. If we want to change our culture for the better, the first step we must consider is opting out of the state’s educational system. Otherwise, we will lose succeeding generations as they are indoctrinated with a faulty worldview and false history.