Blogs > Cliopatria > A Sewanee for the 21st Century

Dec 1, 2005 8:56 am

A Sewanee for the 21st Century

Both Stephen Tootle at Big Tent and Hiram Hover picked up on Alan Finder's"In Desire to Grow, Colleges in South Battle with Roots," New York Times, 30 November. Stephen found vindication of his free market dispositions in it and Hiram found further evidence of the South's painful struggle with history, memory, race, and symbol.

You could write a book about the University of the South, more commonly known as"Sewanee." In fact, I did. Where else in the US of A do professors still wear academic gowns for teaching purposes? Imagine, if you can, a mini-replica of Oxford University settled in the remote mountains of east Tennessee. Its original endowment was lost in investment in Confederate bonds and its very clear that, at the end of the Civil War, a defeated Southern white elite retreated to that east Tennessee sojourn to perpetuate a vision of the good old South into a era when its values were surpassed. When I last visited the place for research in the 1970s, Mississippi planters were still retreating from the Delta's summer heat to its refreshing mountain breezes.

To adjust such a place to the 21st century is an extra-ordinary challenge. I don't quite know how my young African American friend, Houston Roberson, quite puts up with it. Neither continuing to celebrate its past nor altogether repudiating it is quite satisfactory. If you're at Vanderbilt, it's one thing to try to rename a building. If you're at Sewanee, you may have to rethink the whole foundation of the institution.

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