The Charlotte News
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 21, 1937
Two Southern Schools
--By W. J. Cash
I haven't yet read the little book by Gerald Johnson which the University of North Carolina Press has recently published. I'm not even sure I'm right in saying the title is "The Wasted Land," though that sounds right for Gerald writing about the South. But I'm pretty sure I'm right in the impression that the theme is the low estate of education in this country under the Potomac and the Ohio, and that Gerald holds forth particularly on the theme that here is a country of 35,000,000 people of old European heritage, a country almost infinitely rich in resources, a country more than three hundred years from its beginning--without a single university of really first rank within its borders!
Anyhow, whether Mr. Johnson is responsible for it or not, the thesis is a modestly sound one. There are historical reasons why it should be true, no doubt--and reasons pretty well summed up in the title of "The Wasted Land." But it is doubtful if those historical causes any longer run to explain why it should be true today. And in any case--true it remains.
Of exceptions their only possibly two. I mean, of course, the universities of Virginia and North Carolina. Duke? Well, Duke is doing better with each passing year. But essentially Duke still remains a somewhat garish nouveau, enormously rich, beautifully housed, but sadly fluttered and chaotic, without adequate tradition, and without any very definite notion of where it may be going. Tomorrow it may be anything, but today--today it is like nothing so much as an oil heiress from Oklahoma.
But the University of Virginia--ah, there is something distinctive in the way of the university for you, as Virginius Dabney, a loyal son, announces proudly in his introduction to "The University of Virginia," a volume of thirty-two excellent woodcuts by Charles W. Smith, issuing from the press of the Johnson Publishing company at Richmond. Mr. Smith is a native of the valley of Virginia himself, and his prints have before now, won him extended fame.
But to return to the university. It is, as Mr. Smith's woodcuts once more drive home to us, one of the most beautiful places in the world. Not Oxford, not Cambridge in the dusk when the mist comes up from the river, not Salamanca the golden, not Pavia, or Bologna, not Harvard or Fair Nassau, is one-half so lovely to look upon as this place with its plain brick walls and white colonnades. I have always sympathized with the Yankee author--who he was escapes me now--who recorded that if he had known in his youth that a place so beautiful existed on earth, he'd have gone there and stayed if he had had to slave as a waiter in commons to do it.
But it is not only beauty it has. It has tradition, too. A more complete contrast to amorphic Duke could hardly be imagined. Life here is a ritual. Everything is ordained and fixed by custom, from the tipping of hats on the campus to the correct approach to a bottle--or a seduction.
And not only beauty and tradition, but freedom: it has also. "There are no faculty spies or sleuths at Virginia," and no prep-school rules about drinking and other matters of personal conducts. There is only the concept of honor, and of gentility. There is only the ritual which says: this may be done, that may not be.
Nevertheless, and for all that it is really a first-rate university in the strict sense? I'm afraid it isn't. It is a very nice old gentleman of Richmond sitting in his rose-garden, twiddling his thumbs. You like him, you admire him, you think him a tremendous and charming fellow, but all the same you feel that he doesn't matter a great deal one way or the other. This university sums up the South which Henry Adams found in Rooney Lee--that South which had temperament but little mind. Oh, I know very well that it has always maintained its intellectual dignity, and that many men of great endowment have served for years on its faculty. Yet in the end, one feels that the mind, as such, does not greatly matter there and after all it is the mind with which a university is at length properly concerned.
THERE'S CHAPEL HILL
But I mentioned the University of Chapel Hill. And that is something else again. A beautiful place, too, after another fashion than the classic fashion of Charlottesville--gray and a little unkempt. Shaped and framed, to some extent, you can easily see, by the Virginia tradition. It is freer here than at most Southern schools, though they still cling to various prep school practices. There is something of ritual here, also, and the cult of gentility and honor. But the ritual is vastly looser and more indecisive. The cult, as it were, wears homespun and speaks with a faint frontier drawl as befits a plain state like North Carolina.
But the great thing about the school, of course, is not its tradition, not its beauty, not anything of the past. It is that it almost succeeds in being a university of the first rank. It has the impulse. It respects the mind. It probes and searches after facts and ideas--sometimes till the state about it howls in pain. And it would actually be a great university, I have no doubt of it, if only it had the money. But with things as they are...
These, as I said, are the only two which might even consider as standing as exceptions to Mr. Johnson's proposition--if it is his. Others have charming beauty, to be sure--many of them. Few Southern schools of any rank in the land, indeed, fail utterly of beauty and charm. But these two stand apart. And not even they can be really reckoned as first-rate.
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