Textbooks and the Southern Tradition

From as far back as there are written records, each generation has been trained in the wisdom of the culture. In ancient Egypt, the copybook served as the priestly students’ summary of the tradition. Kipling’s poem, “The Gods of the Copybook Headings” (1919), is an eloquent testimony to the power of the copybook in times past, and also to the truths that modern man has forgotten by substituting textbooks for copybooks.

The textbook is the reigning elite’s means of establishing a common world-and-life view among the young. What the textbook contains is not so important as what it leaves out. It leaves out evidence of rival views. The textbook creates an illusion that there is common agreement regarding the received tradition beyond the carefully selected committee that screened the manuscripts. But, over time, the textbook tradition becomes the received tradition. This is why the Web and the home school movement today offer the first significant challenge to the textbook tradition — a challenge based on that most uprooting, anti-establishment free market force, price competition.

The war for the minds of the next generation has been more carefully laid out by textbook committees than by any consortium or conspiratorial meeting behind closed doors. The textbook committees control by elimination.


In 1883, Lester Frank Ward, the father of American central planning, laid down the fundamental principle of the public school textbook. In his manifesto, Dynamic Sociology, he described what the Darwinian elite — scientific, political educational — had to do in order to shape the minds of future generations.

He began with a crucial admission: coercion does not work, at least not conventional coercion. “No law, no physical coercion, from whichever code or from whatever source, can compel the mind to discover principles or invent machines. . . . To influence such action, other means must be employed.” This is because men act in terms of their opinions, “and without changing those opinions it is wholly impossible perceptibly to change such conduct.” Here is the planners’ task: “Instill progressive principles, no matter how, into the mind, and progressive actions will result.” (II, p. 547).

But there are deep-seated barriers to progressive principles. “The attempt to change opinions by direct efforts has frequently been made. No one will now deny that coercion applied to this end has been a signal failure.” Is there some answer to this dilemma? Can the planner find a way to alter men’s opinions without using coercion? Yes, he said: the planner must restrict access to competing ideas. No one has put it more bluntly than Ward. He called his approach the method of exclusion.

There is one way, however, in which force may and does secure, not a change of existing opinion, but the acceptance of approved beliefs; but this, so far from weakening the position here taken, affords a capital defense of it. The forcible suppression of the utterance or publication in any form of unwelcome opinions is equivalent to withholding from all undetermined minds the evidence upon which such views rest; and, since opinions are rigidly the products of the data previously furnished the mind, such opinions cannot exist, because no data for them have ever been received. . . . It is simply that true views may as easily be created by this method of exclusion as false ones, which latter is the point of view from which the fact is usually regarded. The more or less arbitrary exclusion of error, i.e., of false data, is to a great degree justifiable, especially where the true data supplied consist of verified experiences, and all the means of re-verifying them are left free. But the same end is practically attained by the intentional supply, on a large scale and systematically carried out, of true data without effort to exclude the false. This, however, is the essence of what is here meant by education, which may be regarded as a systematic process for the manufacture of correct opinions. As such, it is of course highly inventive in its character, and the same may be said of all modes of producing desired belief by the method of exclusion (II, pp. 547-48).

The public schools guarantee that competing data are excluded. “Assume an adequate system of education to be in force, and the question of the quantity and quality of knowledge in society is no longer an open one” (II, p. 549).

Ward’s plan was implemented. To say that it has been successful is to acknowledge the obvious. This fact was brought home to me forcefully on April 23.


On April 23, I attended a funeral of a member of my local congregation. She had been a founding member, attending a Bible study before a pastor even showed up to start a church. Virginia Tidball was a lifelong resident of Fayetteville, Arkansas.

She was among the very last of an old tradition: a staunch Southern Presbyterian of the old school. By that, I mean the Old School. That was what her wing was called. It was the Scottish Calvinist wing of the American church. Its last institutional traces disappeared in the 1940’s in the South. In the North, the last of the Old School ministers had been forced out in 1936. On June 15, for the last time, an article on the Presbyterian theological conflict appeared on the front page of the New York Times. The headline announced: “Barring of 3 Philadelphia Pastors Brings Walkout by Presbyterians.” The same page announced: “G. K. Chesterton, Noted Author, Dies.”

When I say she was the last, I mean it. She was like a thread across time to an ancient past. Her father had been a Southern Presbyterian minister. He in turn had studied theology under Robert L. Dabney. For most people, the name “Dabney” does not ring a bell. The textbook writers have done their work well. Robert L. Dabney was the South’s most respected Protestant theologian and the co-founder of the Southern Presbyterian Church in 1861. (The founding meeting took place in the home of Rev. Joseph Ruggles Wilson, who oversaw the Southern Presbyterian Church, 1865-98, as Stated Clerk, and whose son Woodrow went first into the field of higher education, then politics.) During the war, Dabney served as both chaplain and aide de camp for Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. He later wrote a biography of Jackson. He was so completely unreconstructed that in 1867, he allowed to be published his book, written during the war, A Defence of Virginia [And Through Her, of the South]. It included a vigorous defense of slavery, which by 1867 was politically incorrect in the South. He ended his career on the original faculty of the University of Texas, teaching free market economics (still called political economy), blind when he retired in 1894, and also teaching at a Presbyterian seminary in Austin. He died in 1898.

Virginia Tidball was born in 1904, the same year that the last major party candidate for President openly supported the gold standard, the long-forgotten Alton B. Parker, whose defeat by Teddy Roosevelt ended the Old Democracy, seemingly forever. But there were remnants, and Virginia Tidball was one of them.

They still tell the story of the time that John Duncan, the mathematics teacher from Scotland, ended the music portion of the worship service by having the congregation sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” After the service, Miss Tidball told him: “I forgive you, for you are not a native of this country.” Whether or not she was speaking of the United States, no one had the courage to ask.

The world she left behind is a very different world from the one she was born into. In the South, Dabney’s name is forgotten. The textbook story of the late unpleasantness, 1861-65, is the victors’ story. The South adopted tax-funded education with a vengeance, thereby turning the region’s children over to the New York textbook publishers long before World War I. A New York-published and edited U.S. history textbook provides a view of Southern history that is as faithful to the facts as Joseph Ruggles’ son was faithful to the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), which he swore before God that he believed when he became a ruling elder in the Northern Presbyterian Church.


There are still holdouts for the state’s rights tradition of the Old South. There always have been. But the textbooks overwhelmed that legacy. The uniformity of education, provided first by the textbooks, then by academic accreditation of the nation’s colleges, has crushed regionalism. The textbook story of America leads to, then flows from, Abraham Lincoln’s defense of the Union as a messianic cause.

The South abandoned the state’s rights legacy when it concluded after 1865 that the state has the right to educate children at taxpayer expense. That surrender was vastly more significant in securing the defeat of the Southern tradition than General Lee’s symbolic transfer of his sword to General Grant at Appomattox Court House. Grant allowed Lee to keep his sword. The South was not allowed to keep its tradition.

April 26, 2002

Gary North is the author of Mises on Money. To subscribe to his free investment letter (e-mail), click here.

© 2002 LewRockwell.com

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