Examining the Past, Present, and Future: A Southern Spin on Charles Dickens’ Classic Tale

Happy holidays from MDC and the State of the South blog! This is a time of year where many of us pause to be reflective. For some, it’s a season of advent: of waiting in stillness for something we hope for. For some, this is a season of celebrations of culture and self-determination. Many of us may be reflecting on our 2017 new year’s resolutions, asking ourselves what we accomplished this year and setting goals to move forward. MDC is also especially reflective these days, as we celebrate our 50th anniversary. As part of our upcoming events to mark this milestone, we’re releasing a new edition of our State of the South report in early 2018. This report will look back at the state of the South over the last 50 years, examine the present–both our assets and challenges—and consider how we must work toward a future of shared well-being.

In that way, you could say MDC is encouraging the South to have a moment akin to what Ebenezer Scrooge experienced in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In Dickens’ classic Christmas tale, Scrooge must confront his past, acknowledge his present, and change his future, or else suffer a fate he does not want. Our 2018 report will encourage leaders in the South to ask themselves similar questions about the direction of the region: to take stock of the past, address the realities of our present, and actively participate to shape a future that benefits all. I wonder what a Southern Christmas Carol would look like?

Though there are a number of areas the South could and should confront, acknowledge, and change, this post provides a brief exploration of the South’s relationship with education. (Our upcoming 2018 report will explore education and a variety of other phenomena more deeply, so please stay tuned.)

In Charles Dickens’ original story, the “Ghost of Christmas Past” shows Ebenezer Scrooge flashbacks of his own past. In the process, Scrooge sees examples of generosity shown to him. But he also sees himself sink into loneliness, because he values his own money and profit above all else. Surely the South can relate to both being the beneficiary of generosity—and to clinging tightly to our own wallets. That’s not to say that the South isn’t itself a generous region. As we’ve just described in our report produced in partnership with the Southeastern Council of Foundations, the region is home to a multitude of philanthropists who care for their home communities. In addition, the concept of “Southern hospitality” conjures images of families opening their homes, widening their dinner tables, and supporting their neighbors through difficult times. However, when we look at systemic investments in practices and institutions that change the odds for people living with poverty and economic insecurity, rather than helping them overcome the odds, we start to get a different picture.

If the “Ghost of the Southern Past” visited us today and gave us a glimpse of the South’s history with education, we might be reminded of an uncomfortable number of efforts to hold power and resources and to keep many people—especially people of color—from accessing the knowledge and tools that could help them advance economically. Maybe we’d see images of families held captive in slavery sneaking their children to dilapidated school houses to learn their ABCs. In the years following the abolition of slavery and Reconstruction, we’d see a mere evolution of similar thwarting efforts. Though Brown vs. Board of Education declared “separate but equal” to be unconstitutional in 1954 and called for the desegregation of schools, states across the South were slow to provide equal quality education, and many white Southern residents met the ruling with resistance and violence. If the “Ghost of the Southern Past” were to take us back 50 years to 1967, we’d still see a raw response to desegregation among Southern communities. We’d see the Supreme Court further handing down rulings to ensure the South gave children of color equal educational opportunities, such as the 1969 ruling asserting that “all deliberate speed” was no longer good enough for Mississippi. Shortly after, we’d be reminded of the 1971 ruling in Swann vs. Charlotte-Mecklenberg Board of Education allowing the use of busing and other strategies to ensure desegregation. And then we’d see the wave of backlash: droves of white families pulling their children out of public schools to maintain racial separation. In The Warmth of Other Suns, her prize-winning book on black out-migration, Isabel Wilkerson caught the situation at that time:

All the marching and court rulings did little to change some southerners’ hearts. A 1968 survey found that eighty-three percent of whites said they preferred a system with no integration. And they acted on those preferences. By 1970, 158 new white private schools had opened up in Mississippi. By 1971, a quarter of the white students were in private schools, the white families paying tuition many could scarcely afford.

Considering this legacy of institutional efforts to keep nonwhite children across the South from quality education, we shouldn’t be surprised today to reflect on Southern data from 50 years ago and see the glaring disparity in who was equipped with a postsecondary credential and who was not:

What if the “Ghost of the Southern Present” came to visit? We might breathe a sigh of relief, ready for some good news and knowing that things can’t be as bad today as they were 50 years ago. In Dickens’ tale, Ebenezer Scrooge sees the present from a new vantage point, and this forces him to acknowledge issues that were around him all along, but that he did not want to see because it was inconvenient to his own greed. When Scrooge sees clearly the reality of his employee’s life, struggling to support an ill son (Tiny Tim), he sees the present with new eyes. Here at MDC, we hope our 2018 report will also encourage leaders across the South to see our present with new eyes. Because while the South has made progress increasing equitable conditions in education, there is still much to confront—or as we say, the state of education in the South is better than it was, but not good enough.

“The Ghost of the Southern Present” may commend the South for strides on academic completion. If we look at Virginia, for example, we see that whereas in 1970, only around 14 percent of whites and five percent of blacks in the South had a bachelor’s degree, in 2015 those numbers went up to 40 and 22 percent, respectively. However, we see that disparities remain. Our warning visitor might give us glimpses of the lived realities of students today: students who know that a postsecondary credential is key to economic success, but who face seemingly insurmountable odds of tuition fees, limited access to financial aid, and logistical barriers like inadequate transportation. We might also confront resegregation efforts across the South that exclude poor and minority students in the name of local control and school choice, with the ultimate effect of unequal school quality, given school funding formulas that rely on property taxes. At the same time, we’d see that local school quality is key to upward economic mobility and that a postsecondary credential makes a difference to students’ eventual earnings:

But the “Ghost of the Southern Present” might show us something else, too—something MDC has seen in our work with community colleges, leaders in higher education, and other concerned residents across the South: a determination to address systemic problems, value student voices, and expand access to education. For example, in a forthcoming report for the ECMC Foundation, we saw the thoughtful way Southern community colleges are making transfer easier for students who aspire to attain a four-year degree. Through our work with Healthy Places North Carolina, an initiative by the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, we see how community college leaders are ensuring their students have access to the resources they need to maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle. And we’re now seeing North Carolina establish a statewide educational attainment goal through My Future NC, a commission designed to advance this goal with attention to equity.

The state of education in the South in 2017 is a blurred image of progress and disparities. Depending on the sustainability of our current efforts, our future could look very different. In A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge realizes his present matters for his future. When he sees that his current track leads to neglect and unhappiness, he makes a choice to do better. I imagine the “Ghost of the Southern Future” would encourage us to see that the region’s history of exclusion and lack of upward mobility also leads to a place of repression and economic instability. Our future, too, is not yet determined: if we continue on a path of divestment and exclusion, we could see an even more widely stratified society. As we become increasingly racially and ethnically diverse, we could see huge segments of the population barred from the tools and knowledge they need to be economically secure. That would put a drain on communities, the region, and the nation as a whole. But, if we intentionally confront barriers to education, all the way from pre-K through a postsecondary credential, by investing more in teachers, infrastructure, and supplies; by amending current funding formulas that rely on property taxes; and by addressing the financial and logistical barriers that keep students from attaining a credential, we could start to see more people equipped with what they need to be upwardly mobile. The South as a whole would prosper as a result, because, as we say at MDC, “society benefits with everyone succeeds.”

Like Ebenezer Scrooge, the region has a choice to make going into 2018. Leaders in the South can soberly confront the region’s past, clearly examine its present, and choose to proactively shape our future, so that the South is a place of shared well-being. We hope you will be on the look-out for our report in 2018 and consider together with us the kind of place we want the South to become—and what we need to do now to make that happen.