Last September, John Warner published an article in Inside Higher Ed titled “Apparently, Geniuses Don’t Work in the South” questioning why so many MacArthur grantees hail from New York and California–the linchpins of American intellectualisms–and so few from the American South. According to Warner, only three, THREE, MacArthur Genius grantees in the past four years are currently working in the south–largely from Atlanta and the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, hardly The South by some accounts. As a Southerner pursuing a graduate education at one of those “prestigious” universities in the Northeast, I am constantly confronted with this reality. It is not only that there are few to none MacArthur Geniuses who live and work in the South, what i would call “the southern question” is much bigger than that. Earlier this week, Slate ran an article about the North Carolina State Legislature’s assault on public school teachers, and I see Warner’s inquiry about the geographic distribution of MacArthur grants, and the current plight of public education in North Carolina as part-and-parcel of the same bigger issue. In his article, Warner speaks for his southern peers and colleagues–expressing their frustration “that the cultural movers and shakers don’t even care to know what’s going on here.” As an aspiring academic/intellectual who was born-and-bred in the suburbs of the American South, I would argue that the educational and cultural milieu do little, if anything at all, to foster an environment which might breed the next generation of great American thinkers. While the most prestigious public and private schools in New York and Boston are preparing their students to be politicians and thinkers, students in the American South are being inculcated in the spirit of football and corporate leadership. Indeed, this is an exaggeration. Many of my Southern peers are incredibly bright and ambitious, but as a rule I would argue that most of us feel compelled to leave the South to pursue politics, scholarships, and other “big world” ambitions. Arguably, Duke, Emory, and Vanderbilt are world-class institutions for medicine, law, and academic scholarship. But here, the question is not only whether or not academics working in the South are being considered for prestigious, nation-wide grants and scholarships, but also whether or not the South is growing its own class of world-class thinkers and doers. There’s also the question of being proud of where you come from. Regardless of how critical or uncritical I am of the community in which I was raised, people in intellectual communities simply don’t take the South, as a legitimate site for the production of knowledge and practice, seriously. Nearly every time I have told someone at Bard and Brown that I am from the South, they invariably make a face and go on to ask me how I feel about such a backward and parochial face. It’s almost as if there is no option other than to be ashamed of where we come from.
Some will argue that the world-at-large is not the end-all-be-all of thinking and doing, that working minutely and locally is equally important. And i don’t disagree with that argument. There are SO MANY people here in Charlotte doing REALLY good work, and it should be acknowledged as being nothing less than meaningful and impressive. But on Monday, as I read that Slate article about the North Carolina legislature’s full-frontal attack on public education–and public everything, really–I was faced with a dilemma. I am one of those people who has left North Carolina, and keeps leaving. Not only did I leave for college, but I also left for graduate school with few prospects of returning for the long-haul. From my selfish perspective, there is nothing for me in North Carolina and the South. Of course there are this Duke, Emory, UNC-Chapel Hill, Vanderbilt, and a whole slew of other “world-class institutions,” but I can’t help but feel that there is a definitive lack of opportunity for me: an anthropologist studying culture and politics in contemporary South Asia. But the selfless part of me, the part that has a calling to serve–to contribute towards making the world a better place in whatever small and probably insignificant way that I can–I can’t help but feel troubled by the fact that I have so comfortably removed myself from the thinking and doing that goes on here, in my quest for “bigger and better things.” In the “local is global” movement that seems to be in fashion right now, the question is about working towards improving the here rather than the there, or about contributing to cities and communities right here in America rather than those far-off, exotic places across the world. Indeed, this is incredibly important. In our mid-twentieth century obsession–that really has carried over into the twenty-first century–with serving those places lesser-off than we are, the endemic problems that plague the American economic, education, and political systems have been largely ignored by the public at-large. The “local is global” movement in its various manifestations–at schools, in colleges, on farms–aims to address this lacuna in scholarship, and indeed goes a long way towards encouraging people to serve in their own communities. But what programs like Americorps City Year don’t do, is encourage people–at least not actively, publicly–to return to their own communities, especially not in the South. And this return is not only about serving. It is about settling here, and about committing to the economic, cultural, and importantly the intellectual life of a place that has far too long been dismissed as an intellectual and cultural abyss. I have no definitive answers about this, and I certainly can’t promise that I’ll return South when I become an assistant professor, or whatever else I become. But a lot people ask me how I like the South, and alternatively how I like New England. Often these questions have to do with my preferences about the climate, the bitter New England cold compared to the mild, spring-like winters of the South. But it would be naive to say that it doesn’t go father than that, that people aren’t also curious about how I feel about the fundamental differences that separate the South–and even the Midwest, and rural America at-large–from the “progressive,” urban, and intellectual centers of this country.