The Educational Imaginary in Radical Reconstruction: Congressional Public Policy Rhetoric and American Federalism, 1862-1872
Steudeman, Michael Joseph
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Facing the exigencies of Emancipation, a South in ruins, and ongoing violence, between 1862 and 1872 the United States Congress debated the role education would play in the postbellum polity. Positing schooling as a panacea for the nation’s problems, a determiner of individual worth, and a way of ameliorating state and federal tensions, congressional leaders envisioned education as a way of reshaping American political life. In pursuit of this vision, many policymakers advocated national school agencies and assertive interventions into state educational systems. Interrogating the meaning of “education” for congressional leaders, this study examines the role of this ambiguous concept in negotiating the contradictions of federal and state identity, projecting visions of social change, evaluating civic preparedness, and enabling broader debates over the nation’s future. Examining legislative debates over the Reconstruction Acts, Freedmen’s Bureau, Bureau of Education, and two bills for national education reform in the early 1870s, this project examines how disparate educational visions of Republicans and Democrats collided and mutated amid the vicissitudes of public policy argument. Engaging rhetorical concepts of temporality, disposition, and political judgment, it examines the allure and limitations of education policy rhetoric, and how this rhetoric shifted amid the difficult process of coming to policy agreements in a tumultuous era. In a broader historical sense, this project considers the role of Reconstruction Era congressional rhetoric in shaping the long-term development of contemporary Americans’ “educational imaginary,” the tacit, often unarticulated assumptions about schooling that inflect how contemporary Americans engage in political life, civic judgment, and social reform. Treating the analysis of public policy debate as a way to gain insights into transitions in American political life, the study considers how Reconstruction Era debate converged upon certain common agreements, and obfuscated significant fault lines, that persist in contemporary arguments.