Southern Schools Are Whistling Dixie as South Grabs More of National Spotlight, Universities throughout the Region Are Teaching More of Their Own Culture

Article excerpt

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. …


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