Education and a Divided Nation

A Conflicted Campus: How Students and Professors Served the Republic During Wartime

Reviewed by Joey Levy
May 1, 2014

Samantha Payne, the author of “A Conflicted Campus,” discusses the importance of education in the early Civil War and antebellum periods.  Education played a critical role facilitating interest in politics, molding the nation’s future political leaders, and inspiring students to uphold republican values.

Payne discusses the active role students and professors played in the political process, particularly during the presidential election of 1860.  While there was an obvious divide in support, Payne claims that students in both the North and South were able to uphold a respectable debate indicative of the valuable public discourse that was taking place at colleges throughout the nation.

Once the war began in 1861, Payne points to a majority of students leaving their colleges to support their respective war efforts.  Payne emphasizes that the ideology precipitating the war was not the only reason for this trend, but also the fact that the attention garnered by the war itself made it difficult for students to focus on both patriotism and their studies.  When it came down to it, students usually had to choose one or the other, and the majority of them chose to enlist in their respective armies.

Payne recognizes that many Northern soldiers decided to enlist to combat the institution of slavery.  This was particularly the case for students at Oberlin College, an institution founded by abolitionists.  However, even the students who were far removed from the slavery issue still viewed the war effort as the preservation of American liberty, and thus had a moral imperative to enlist.   Students in the South generally did not view the preservation of slavery as contradictory to the principles of liberty, but rather viewed the North as a tyrannical state comparable to the British during the American Revolution.

In both the North and South, the war transformed college campuses, both literally and intellectually.  Because students complained that their colleges did not adequately prepare them for military engagement, colleges cleared their gyms and modified their curriculums in order to place an emphasis on strength training and combat.  The changes witnessed throughout college campuses were significant, as, “college students transformed their campuses into drilling grounds in order to become republican men prepared for war.”  This changing sentiment did not persist without opposition, as professors were worried that the militarism of college campuses threatened the “republican role of students.”  Professors argued that this increased emphasis on military education would result in halting the progress of “science and civilization” and that students would better serve their respective war efforts by continuing to pursue educations.

Ultimately, Payne emphasizes that it is difficult to know the true convictions of the students who fought, and didn’t fight, in the Civil War.  However, it would be naïve to suggest that the only place one could exert his patriotism was on the battlefield.  While the majority of students did indeed serve in the military, many were able to prove their strength and patriotism in the classroom.

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