Southern Schools Are Whistling Dixie

As South grabs more of national spotlight, universities throughout the region are teaching more of their own culture

IN a sprawling brick mansion at the University of Mississippi, Oxford, William Ferris points to items in his corner office that indicate the world's growing fascination with the American South.

Lined up on the edge of his desk are a book by a German scholar on native Mississippian William Faulkner, the collective works of Faulkner in Russian, a compact disc of Elvis Presley's music in Japanese, and a French book exploring Elvis's message.

"Those are things I've received just in the past week," says Mr. Ferris, a soft-spoken man who plays the guitar and sings the blues. "It shows that the study of the South has become a global enterprise. There is interest in the South in every culture."

Ferris should know. He is the director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, which encourages understanding of the South and where every facet of the diverse region - from politics to music to food - is studied. Opened in 1977 with a staff of four, the center now has 22 full-time professors, editors, and scholars, who conduct world-renowned conferences, publish a slew of magazines and books on the South, and teach students from around the globe.

Growing like kudzu

Though the Ole Miss center's interdisciplinary program is considered among the most comprehensive in the country, Southern studies curriculums are popular at many institutions this side of the Mason-Dixon line. The University of South Carolina, Duke, Vanderbilt, and Emory Universities have well-established programs. The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, started its Center for the Study of the American South just three years ago. And the programs are multiplying elsewhere.

"There's hardly a university in the South now that does not have some form of [course on] Southern culture," Ferris says.

While the South has long held an attraction for scholars, interest in the region - which stretches by most definitions from Virginia to Texas - is building. "Our courses are crammed," says Nancy Cooper, assistant director of the Institute for Southern Studies at the University of South Carolina.

The fascination can be attributed in part to the rise in the economic and political clout of the South. As native sons such as House Speaker Newt Gingrich and CNN-owner Ted Turner become known nationwide, they garner greater attention for the South.

This helps draw investment to what is already one of the fastest growing economy regions of the country - spurred by low wages, low taxes, and the advent of air conditioning. Cities here enjoy some of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation. Long a Democratic bastion, the South is now becoming a stronghold of the Republican Party and five of the six top leadership posts in Congress are held by Southerners.

Interest in the South also stems from the area's rich contribution to American culture. The region, long considered poor and illiterate, has at the same time produced some of the nation's greatest writers, such as William Faulkner, Erskine Caldwell, and Eudora Welty. Musical genres - country, gospel, rock, blues, and jazz - have roots in the South.

"Modern issues have forced American historians to look seriously at the South," says James Roark, a professor at Emory University in Atlanta. "Southern studies profited when black history was discovered by white historians."

Interest in the South is also growing overseas. More international tourists and investors are visiting the region, and students in Europe and Japan are increasingly taking American studies courses, says David Moltke-Hansen, director of the center at the University of North Carolina.

The center at Old Miss, however, had its share of skeptics when it was launched some 20 years ago. "Some people said the university was wasting its money; some said Southern culture was an oxymoron and that the South was not worthy of study," Ferris remembers.

The center still faces some criticism for its programs. Many questioned why Elvis Presley, a poor, white Southern boy with no academic background, was the focus of a week-long international conference held last August, for example.

Despite objections, the center has become a distinguishing feature of the university, which was the school's intention. And it has since come a long way from its beginnings. Once housed in cramped quarters on this oak-draped campus, the center is now located in a former observatory and stately chancellor's residence.

Its facade is graced by tall windows, white columns, and several domes. Inside, grand, sweeping staircases lead to pastel-painted offices and meeting rooms. On the first floor, a small shop sells the publications produced by the Southern studies staff, including the massive Encyclopedia of Southern Culture; Living Blues magazine; and Reckon, a glossy quarterly that delves into all aspects of the South.

Students in the undergraduate and graduate programs take courses on subjects ranging from the literature of the Old South to black American art. They hail from as near as Mississippi and as far as Germany. Joe Anoatubby, a Chickasaw Indian whose father is governor of the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma, decided to pursue a master's in Southern studies to explore how native Americans contributed to the South's culture. "I've always had an interest in Southern culture, and Chickasaw history is tied a lot to the South."

Diverse region

Jennifer Bryant, a Virginia native who earned a master's degree last spring specializing in historic preservation, says her study of the South here has broadened her view. "There's so many different parts to the South, so many different issues," Ms. Bryant says. "You have to understand that in order to overcome the stereotypes that exist."

To Ferris, the most interesting aspect of the center's work is its growing relationship with the international community. The center has led four delegations to Moscow for conferences on Southern writers. Last year, Ferris spent a week in London for a British celebration of the South "in which a stern wheeler took us up the Thames while we ate barbecue," he says, adding, "These international links were never anticipated."

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