It has been a decade or more since I had exposure to authentic High Southern Culture. As we continue the progress towards a different overall society we will eventually forget certain dimensions of the past to make way for the future. It has been said that many people whose formative years occurred in the context of certain, distinct social climates are given to a nostalgic sense of the primacy of those times. In other words, the way people did things in the past may be superior to how things are today. I am not of that opinion and I think the future requires more emphasis than the past except when considering the excellence of the past.
Southern education can be varied such as the case when I was a student in the South. In those days and in some parts of the South there was an emphasis on art, literature, and philosophy to such an extent you would think you were living in the Renaissance with a bit of Greek thrown in for good measure. The teachers of those times were well spoken, even headed, and deliberate individuals who, depending on their background were well versed in English classics, Western History, and contemporary American History and civil science and policy. They formed a unique part of Southern Culture that was life affirming and full of intellectual energy that fueled both the joy of learning and the ecstasy of personal growth.
Education in the South during the times I participated in it decades ago was broad rather than technical. There was an emphasis on learning some of the works of Shakespeare and other English classics. Much was the time given in a review of early 20th century literature and art of diverse kinds but with preference given to Walt Whitman, Georgia O’Keefe, Emily Dickinson, Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain among others. We read literature, wrote about literature, authors, their works, interpreted those works under the guidance of educators and developed the ability to discuss literature. Admittedly, it is a skill and sense that I have lost when I traded my literary and artistic wings for technical ones, but it is worth noting that Southern Education, at least as I remember it, was replete with substance, depth, and a powerful foundation upon which to build the minds of individuals.
We honestly, and openly discussed racism, Women’s rights, and the role of the citizen in a range of ways to include essays, mock debates, and role plays in which people of different ethnic backgrounds portrayed positions opposite their learned culture perception. The teachers I remember were open-minded, genuinely focused on the development of individuals and some of them somehow followed some of us through many years as those educators advanced. The result was a rich, personal, and well calibrated educational process that brought out the inherent virtues of the individual to better express points of view while learning the material in a way that was meaningful.
High Southern Culture
I am certainly not one born of or bearing Southern cultural grace. I was born in a much different place. During much of the time I have lived in the South for the last several decades, I have known persons representative of a cultural sensibility that is gentile, steady, and well-informed. They are important ambassadors of a rich cultural past filled with nuance, meaning, and style that blends individualism with social harmony. Their manner of speaking, use of non-verbal and verbal metaphor, and ability to shift from the personally practical (bee honey for pollen allergies) to the extravagantly elegant (a Belle Ball with Lemonade and Tea) and several conventional expressions and concepts in between is a credit to a beautiful cultural legacy. Much of this is undoubtedly a manifestation of Southern literature and tradition. Of course, like in many cultural legacies, there are disappointing aspects that, in this case, we know much about. Regardless, the beautiful and impressive aspects of High Southern Culture are valuable and would be useful to sustain, refine, and maintain into the future.
By Michael Gautier