Cultivating Regionalism

Higher Education and the Making of the American Midwest

By Kenneth Wheeler

From The Northern Illinois University Press

208 pp / 6 X 9 / 8 illus / 2011

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In this ambitious book, Kenneth Wheeler revises our understanding of the nineteenth-century American Midwest by reconsidering an institution that was pivotal in its making—the small college. During the antebellum decades, Americans built a remarkable number of colleges in the Midwest that would help cultivate their regional identity. Through higher education, the values of people living north and west of the Ohio River formed the basis of a new Midwestern culture.

Cultivating Regionalism shows how college founders built robust institutions of higher learning in this socially and ethnically diverse milieu. Contrary to conventional wisdom, these colleges were much different than their counterparts in the East and South—not derivative of them as many historians suggest. Manual labor programs, for instance, nurtured a Midwestern zeal for connecting mind and body. And the coeducation of men and women at these schools exploded gender norms throughout the region.

Students emerging from these colleges would ultimately shape the ethos of the Progressive era and in large numbers take up scientific investigation as an expression of their egalitarian, production-oriented training. More than a history of these antebellum schools, this elegantly conceived work exposes the interplay in regionalism between thought and action—who antebellum Midwesterners imagined they were and how they built their colleges in distinct ways.

Reviews & Quotes

"The value of this book is that it makes new and interesting arguments about three issues in American history: American preeminence in the natural sciences; the origins of Progressivism; and how the culture of the Old Northwest differed from that of the Northeast and the South."
— Thomas Hamm, Earlham College

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"The Early American Places series is an exciting development in scholarly publishing, one that will highlight the most important part of the study of history: the local and particular dimensions of global issues and trends. This is where the rubber meets the road, where ordinary people's lives help to make, and are made by, the bustling wider world in which they live. Early American Places is an original series, and it will publish important scholarship."

— Stephanie M. H. Camp, University of Washington