The smog of political correctness hangs heavily over most American colleges and universities. Since the politically correct are intolerant, support only their own style of research, and hire and tenure only their own kind, this condition may well he with us for two generations. This has led some to despair over the fate of higher education in the humanities. But such despair takes the universities entirely too seriously. Humane learning has not always had its source in established educational institutions. The origins of the Western university lie in the rhetorical and philosophical schools that sprang up in ancient Greece, and as these institutions degenerated into the sterile eclecticism of late antiquity, new sources of learning emerged from small Christian communities seeking to interpret the gospels within the framework provided by Plato and Aristotle. These communities gathered up the remnants from the wreckage of pagan Greek and Roman civilization, eventually building the great universities of medieval Europe. These flourished for four centuries before hardening into the academic self-absorption of late scholasticism, against which what we call modern thought rebelled.
The most influential modern philosophers were found almost exclusively outside the universities: Montaigne, Machiavelli, Bacon, Hobbes, Pascal, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Mandeville, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Mill, Nietzsehe, Marx, Kierkegaard. They occupied not the position of professor but of lens grinder, gentleman, secretary, statesman, librarian, government official, corporate executive, and even beggar. The writings of this “republic of letters” became the canon of modern universities. The lesson is plain; Institutions of higher learning, over time, become self-absorbed and decadent. When that happens, it is necessary to secede from those institutions and to seek new venues for learning.
Secessionist tendencies today are found everywhere, but they often take a peculiar form. Building new universities is desirable, but too expensive; serious reform is not possible in the foreseeable future. Postmodern, politically correct fundamentalism controls the administration and the faculty, but it does not control the students. They belong to families and communities which often have strong religious and regional identities. Many students find the tone of postmodern fundamentalism not only morally absurd but boring. The ritual is the same everywhere: traditional American society is racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, and the chief obstacle to a global universalist civilization. Many students have sufficient virtue from their upbringing to sense that they are surrounded by something profoundly distorted and dehumanizing, but they do not have the intellectual resources to understand precisely what is wrong.
To meet this need, a great number of “institutes” of higher learning have spontaneously emerged to educate students outside the university in summer schools, conferences, and seminars. Students meet scholars of national and international reputation who open to them avenues of learning they are not likely to find in their normal course of study. Armed with new questions and insights, students are able to put the resources of the university to better effect, engaging in serious intellectual debate with their teachers and classmates.
One of these is the League of the South (LS) Institute for the Study of Southern Culture and History. Over 50 scholars in higher education have signed on to the Institute’s mission to recover what T.S. Eliot called “the permanent things,” as they are revealed in the Southern tradition. This tradition has provided a searing critique of the spiritual and intellectual pathologies of modern society. This criticism flows from a long line of Southern thinkers: Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, George Mason, St. George Tucker, John Randolph, Abel Upshur, John C. Calhoun, William Gilmore Simms, Albert Taylor Bledsoe, Robert Louis Dabney, Basil Gildersleeve, the Nashville Agrarians, Richard M. Weaver, M.E. Bradford, and many others.
The cultural elites governing America today have embraced the very intellectual and spiritual pathologies against which the Southern tradition has consistently inveighed. It should not be surprising, therefore, that this tradition of resistance to modernity is largely unknown—even to Southern students. Young Southerners seeking an understanding of their own heritage in colleges and universities of the South are likely to find nothing. If their tradition is mentioned at all, it is usually demonized as a masked defense of racism.
The campaign to eradicate Southern memory has been successful. In less than 40 years, young Southerners have become strangers in the colleges and universities funded by their parents’ tax dollars and by the generous gifts of Southern alumni. In supporting most institutions of higher learning in the South, Southerners are literally funding their own cultural destruction. It is, therefore, necessary to form alternative centers of learning which can provide undergraduate and graduate students of the South, black and white, with a scholarly understanding of what is noble in the Southern tradition and of how to extend that tradition into the future. The LS Institute was formed for this purpose, and it seeks to recover speculative insights not cultivated by the academy today. But it also seeks to recover and preserve the identity of an oppressed and demoralized people, and in this it shares a close affinity with the Irish hedge schools.
The Penal Laws imposed on the Irish people in 1695 were designed by English officials in London and Dublin to extirpate the native Celtic language and culture of Ireland. From the 1690’s to the 1840’s, the youth of Ireland received their education in little gatherings that sprang up throughout the country. They were taught in abandoned buildings, sod huts, and in the open air against the background of large thorn hedges (hence the name, “hedge schools”). The schools were illegal, and severe penalties were imposed on those who associated with them; still, they flourished for a century and a half keeping alive the native language, literature, and religion as well as an Irish historical self-understanding. The national and cultural identity nourished in these schools asserted itself two centuries later in the formation of the independent Irish Republic.
A German traveler, Johann Kohl, made this observation in the early 1840’s: “An Irish hedge school which I visited—one in the pure old national style—enabled me to observe the mode by which, in these remote parts of Ireland, the light of intellectual cultivation is transmitted. It was, in truth, a touching sight.” A traveler in 1835 remarked on the high quality of education achieved by some of the hedge schools:
I invited one of their number [a boy of twelve years] to read me a passage from the gospel of Saint Matthew. Evidently the child misunderstood me. He searched in his satchel until he found his tattered book, stood up, and proceeded to read me the account of Christ’s passion in Greek.
The LS Institute organizes research and publication, holds conferences, and conducts summer schools on every aspect of the Southern tradition. But there are also what—following the Irish example—we call Hedge School Seminars, typically held all day on a Saturday or over a weekend. Participants are provided beforehand with a collection of readings: Jefferson’s Kentucky Resolutions; the Calhoun-Webster debate; efforts by leading antebellum Southerners to abolish slavery gradually by judicial review as well as by legislation; the “black codes” of Northern and Western states; die suppressed story of black Confederates who saw the defense of their country as a step to civil equality; M.E. Bradford’s essays on Lincoln; and selections from Southern literature, theology, and constitutional law. The seminars are funded and arranged at low cost by local sponsors. An Institute scholar leads a discussion of the readings and stays as a guest in the home of one of the participants. Hedge School Seminars have been held in church buildings, homes, the backrooms of a barbecue shack and of a supermarket, in a private school, in an empty office of a bank on Saturday, and even in the open air under a palmetto grove— anywhere that space permits.
Hedge School Seminars can be tailored to any group, from high-school students to graduate students to the millions of college-educated men and women, working and raising families, who reject the demonization of the South and of their tradition but have been rendered silent.
The reigning assumption of nearly all American historiography since 1865 has been the moral proposition that the Union should have been preserved at all costs—even at the expense of over a million-and-a-half men killed, missing, and wounded.
Until 1860, secession was widely regarded as a right available to an American state. Northern abolitionists had argued for 30 years that the North should secede from the Union as the best way of putting slavery on the road to extinction. They were right. Secession was the only rational and humane solution to the problems facing the federation: the difficulty of gradual emancipation posed by state laws that absolutely prohibited or severely restricted the entrance of free blacks into Western and Northern states; the brutal economic discrimination imposed on the South; and the growth of a continental empire that had swollen to ten times its size in only 50 years. To write history from the assumption that the peaceful dissolution of die Union was a good thing would bring to light an array of facts, moral possibilities, and spectacular moral losses that have been hidden from view. It also would open up political possibilities that today are closed off.
The United States is the last of the 19th-century nationalist empires (something the Constitution was designed to prevent). And with the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is the last empire still to be engaged in the hubristic 19th-century project of imposing its vision of a universalist civilization on the world. The guiding assumptions of American historiography (and of American self-identity) are still rooted in the 19th-century idea of a consolidated nationalist empire at the service of a global liberalism. One hundred and thirty-five years later, we are in a very different world, and a paradigm shift in American historiography is long overdue.
The civic-minded who are concerned about the politicization of higher education should consider diverting some of the funds they unthinkingly give to mainstream colleges and universities to an institute of their choice. It is only from the bonds of friendship, community, and learning formed in these small independent gatherings that cultural renewal is likely to arise.