The standard narrative of the history of education in the United States is that, for most of their history Americans, and Southerners in particular, were not very interested in education. And, this really only began to change with the Reconstruction government raising taxes and appropriating funds for state-sponsored educational enterprises. The South was, as H. L. Mencken phrased it, a “Sahara of the Bozart.”
However this narrative greatly overstates the case for Southern indifference towards education. It is certainly true that most, though not all, Southern states, compared to other regions, were slow to develop state-wide systems of public education. But one should not assume that there was no support for public education or intellectual pursuits in the antebellum South. Kentucky, for instance, made a substantial investment in free schools, as did North Carolina.
Southerners tended to view elementary and secondary education as, primarily, a parental responsibility. Parents, who were able…
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