Citizen Soldiers and Professional Engineers: The Antebellum Engineering Culture of the Virginia Military Institute
Miller, Jonson William
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The founders and officers of the Virginia Military Institute, one of the few American engineering schools in the antebellum period, embedded a particular engineering culture into the curriculum and discipline of the school. This occurred, in some cases, as a consequence of struggles by the elite of western Virginia to gain a greater share of political power in the commonwealth and by the officers of VMI for authority within the field of higher education. In other cases, the engineering culture was crafted as a deliberate strategy within the above struggles. Among the features embedded was the key feature of requiring the subordination of one’s own local and individual interests and identities (class, regional, denominational, etc.) to the service of the commonwealth and nation. This particular articulation of service meant the performance of “practical” and “useful” work of internal improvements for the development and defense of the commonwealth and the nation. The students learned and were to employ an engineering knowledge derived from fundamental physical and mathematical principles, as opposed to a craft knowledge learned on the job. To carry out such work and to even develop the capacity to subordinate their own interests, the cadets were disciplined into certain necessary traits, including moral character, industriousness, selfrestraint, self-discipline, and subordination to authority. To be an engineer was to be a particular kind of man. The above traits were predicated upon the engineers being white men, who, in a new “imagined fraternity” of equal white men, were innately independent, in contrast to white women and blacks, who were innately dependent. Having acquired a mathematically-intensive engineering education and the character necessary to perform engineering work, the graduates of VMI who became engineers were to enter their field as middle-class professionals who could claim an objective knowledge and a disinterested service to the commonwealth and nation, rather than to just their own career aspirations.