By E. Ray Moore, Jr., Th.M.
The Covenant News ~ April 13, 2007

Destroying the Republic: Jabez Curry and the Re-Education of the Old South. New York: Algora Publishing, 332 pp. By John Chodes. $29.95 (quality paperback)

New York playwright and author, John Chodes, has written a significant book that uncovers the neglected history surrounding the rise of state-sponsored education in the South during Reconstruction and the years following. Chodes, a longtime friend of the South and of the limited Constitutional government that the South represents, has written on this history before in periodicals such as Chronicles, The Freeman, The New York Tribune and The Southern Partisan. This book, however, may now be the definitive work on this topic to date. It joins the growing number of quality books on the history of the harm caused by state-sponsored public schools by notables such as 1991 New York Teacher of the Year, John Taylor Gatto in Underground History of American Education (2001) and Dr. Andrew Couslon’s Market Education (1999). Also, Dr Bruce Shortt published The Harsh Truth About Public Schools in 2004, and the late Marlin Maddoux, a Christian talk show host, wrote Public Education Against America, published posthumously in 2006, both of which are primarily for the church audience.

Chodes relates the tragic story of the rise of state-sponsored public education and what he called the "nationalizing" of the South’s mostly private or religious schools. He parallels these events with the life story and contributions of Jabez Curry. A Confederate officer who rode with General Nathan Bedford Forrest, Curry served as a member of the US and Confederate Congresses, as a Baptist minister, a lawyer, an author, the President of the Baptist Richmond College in Virginia, and as US ambassador to Spain. In the period of time from the War Between the States until the 20th Century, Jabez Curry may have been considered one of the South’s most important personalities. Although not a household name in the South today, Curry deserves to be remembered for his success as well as for the role he played in converting the South’s mostly private-school system into public or state-funded schools. While the Unitarian, Horace Mann, of Massachusetts is rightly called the "Father of K-12 public education in America," Jabez Curry played a similar role as "The Horace Mann of the South."

Chodes organized Destroying the Republic chronologically around Curry’s life from the 1850’s until the turn of the 20th Century. Though not a full biography of Curry, the book, nevertheless, exposes Curry’s role as the principal advocate and organizer of state-sponsored public education in the South. This story portrays how anyone can surrender prior principles and convictions which results in capitulating to ideals once believed to be inimical to faith, family and freedom. Curry was, before and during the war, a strong proponent of the ideals of the South and the Old Republic.

Chodes book divides into two sections. Chapters 1-9 explore Curry’s early life story, his origins and his service in the Confederate Congress and Army. It provides fascinating reading as one rides in and out of the lives of great personalities of the period such as President Jefferson Davis, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest and the Confederate Congress. Curry witnessed or participated in many of the important events and battles of the War years. Chapters 10-17 constitute the case for Curry’s role in the rise of state-sponsored public education in the South during and after Reconstruction. The core of Chodes’ book will for many recover a portion of lost Southern history.

Chapter 7 entitled "Southern Preaching as Guerrilla War" discusses two of Curry’s scholarly works, Establishment and Disestablishment and Struggles and Triumphs of Virginia Baptists, written after the War, in which Curry traced the history of Christendom through the centuries and argued for the historic separation of Church and State position common to Baptist heritage. Chodes claims that Curry wrote these books indirectly to argue for the superiority of the Southern cause at a time when Federal Reconstruction prohibited open, aggressive advocacy of the Southern cause.

Chapter 8, "Reconstruction as Re-education," reveals a post-war "reconstruction" that overtook the South socially, culturally and religiously as violent as Marxian revolutions in the modern era. Society today has either forgotten or does not appreciate the enormity of this change. Most history ignores this era or only describes the period in terms of the experiences and changes for former Southern slaves.

The book’s second section, Chapter 11, entitled "Jabez Curry and the Peabody Education Fund," exposes Curry as a catalyst in the conversion of the Southern private and religious school system into tax-funded, state and federally controlled public schools. Beginning with gifts of several million dollars in 1867, George Peabody founded the first major US philanthropy with the purpose of helping the defeated South recover by setting up state-sponsored schools while converting the dominant Southern system of private and religious schools into state-schools, adopting the Northern Unitarian education model. Jabez Curry became the second General Agent in 1881 following the tenure of Barnas Sears, who successfully assured that no ex-Confederate state could re-enter the Union without a clause in the new state constitution demanding state-controlled, tax-supported schools. Sears died in 1880, but he had set the stage well. The policy begun by Sears of giving matching grants from the Peabody Education Fund to Southern cities or counties for establishing a tax-funded state system would continue under Curry.

As General Agents of the Peabody Fund both Sears and Curry carried forward the Horace Mann strategy to create state-controlled teacher training Normal schools. In the 1830’s -1840’s when Horace Mann and the Unitarian socialists completed their efforts for state takeover of Massachusetts schools, the critical element in that plan was the creation of Normal schools or teacher training colleges. Prior to the post war period the South had no Normal schools. Under Sears’ guidance the state of Tennessee was first with the founding of the George Peabody Teachers College. Curry commented on this strategy in A Brief Sketch of George Peabody saying, "It is a concurrent experience in all countries which have established systems of public instruction that they are very incomplete and defective, if they do not embrace professional schools, where the science of education and the art of education are regularly taught."

Chodes describes the long-time friendship beginning in 1867 between Sears and Curry, both Baptist ministers, and how Curry was "transformed to believe in universal, tax-funded common schools." Chapter 11 chronicles the gradual conversion of Jabez Curry to this new position on education, one he once held as contrary to Southern principles. This conversion apparently began when he reversed his position on "universal, tax-funded schools." Had Curry remained true to his beliefs as espoused in his earlier works Establishment and Disestablishment and Triumphs and Struggles of Virgina Baptists, he may have concluded that separation of church and state properly held also applies to separation of school and state.

Curry, an associate and friend of some of the leading figures of the time, had a fascinating history with President Rutherford B. Hayes, also a trustee for the Peabody Fund. Chapter 12 relates Hayes’ rise to the Presidency in the contested election of 1876. Republican Hayes defeated Democrat Samuel Tilden, gaining the electoral votes of South Carolina and Louisiana, in a promise to remove Federal troops. This chapter explodes the popular modern myth that federal intervention in the South’s local schools is an innovation of the late 20th Century. Hayes participated in the Peabody Fund as had President Grant before him. Hayes, more than any other President, wanted Washington, DC, to control local and state education. This federal control of education, an early Republican position, has continued to this day in such agendas as "No Child Left Behind."

Chapters 14 and 15 explain the pivotal and critical impact of education philosophy on the nationalization of Southern education. Chapter 14 shows the influence of Commissioner John Eaton and the Bureau of Education, which eventually evolved into the large federal agency, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, now divided into Departments of Health and Human Services and Education. Eaton and Curry worked as allies in the process of nationalizing Southern schools. Both Chapters 14, 15 introduce William Torrey Harris, G. Stanley Hall, John Dewey and Edward Thorndike, all major thinkers and educational scholars, who introduced Darwinism as foundational to "the new psychology" and progressive education into American education during the last decades of 19th Century and early 20th Century. These two chapters are among the most significant on the deleterious repercussions of these radical educators whose views so permeate all education including Southern schools today.

Curry left the Peabody Fund in 1885 to become Ambassador to Spain, after which he returned to the Peabody Fund where he would complete two decades of total service. Chodes suggests that Curry had regrets about his participation in the conversion of Southern private and religious schools into state-run public schools. In 1898, however, Curry could still boast, "The South is now in rapid transition from private education to an education prescribed and supported by public authority."

The process of nationalizing Southern schools has come full circle. All the consequences of this error have cast human and social debris upon the shores of not only Southern but all American culture. Libertarians, Conservatives, Christians now question the very idea of state-sponsored public education. For some Christians, Scripture clearly and unambiguously assigns the education of children to the family with assistance from the Church; the state or government is the "Great Usurper." One lesson from Curry’s life is that the Christian Faith does not immunize from practical error if not consistently applied as a worldview. Not only the Baptist Curry, but Baptists all across the South have supported public education, but that is beginning to change. "Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it," said Santayana.

John Chodes has written a critical book that can help with understanding first the history of the rise of state-sponsored public schools and then its damage; now remedial action can begin. The South, slow to adopt state education and only under coercion, could lead the way by rejecting that system and returning to the ideal model of private, religious and home schools. The South would thus give herself a great gift and one as well as to the American culture and the world

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