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Southern schools stick to the core four R's

ALTHOUGH the American South is more demographically diverse today than in years past, tradition is still a powerful influence in Southern schools. Even in the 1960s, when schools across the country were experimenting with new classroom methods and alternative courses, Southern schools were, for the most part, sticking to the basics.

There's better teacher pay, and other stirrings of school reform; but, like many other things here, the underlying ethic has not changed much.

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There's still a special blend of conservatism below the Mason-Dixon line: The right is right, the liberals are not, and for many, a sound education means the four R's - reading, writing, 'rithmetic, and religion. This concept of education has as much to do with community traditions and unwritten codes as with academics.

McCallie School here in Chattanooga, for example, is one of the oldest boys' schools in the ``Bible belt''; it counts Howard Baker Jr., media mogul Ted Turner, former Labor Secretary William Brock, and Pat Robertson among its graduates. McCallie demands serious servings of English, math, science, languages, and the Bible (not to be confused with religion) before electives such as art and drama are taken.

While McCallie's version of ``Southern values'' is more pronounced than in larger, more integrated schools, it's not an exception to the rule. McCallie conveys ideas about learning, community ethics, honor, and authority that have long been entrenched in Tennessee society.

Gregg Middleton, now a medical student at Boston University, says that as a teen-ager he disliked the strictness of McCallie, but ``the traditional academic background allowed me to take more diverse courses at BU. I had the basics under my belt.'' At the same time, he says, lessons learned at McCallie went far beyond the classroom.

``When I left the South, I found I had a strong background in a value system,'' he says. ``That gave me a starting point. Since then I've been able to pick and choose which things I want to retain. ... I have been able to move on to my own value system.''

In a region where the gap between public and private schools is wide, problems in public schooling are caused as much by poor funding and resources as by cultural isolation and resistance to change (though such historians as C.Vann Woodward point out that in many ways, the stern lessons of the Civil War and the civil rights efforts have been better absorbed by the South than the North).

Still, education is not an issue Southerners take lightly. During the presidential debates at Houston in February, for example, the most applause by far was in response to comments about the virtue of education. The candidates all played up the issue before Super Tuesday.

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Plenty of alternative schools and vocational programs are to be found here, but most classrooms, both public and private, stick to the traditional core curriculum.

``It's hard to get things changed at Germantown, because we have to pass it by the Board of Education,'' says Blanche Deaderick of Germantown High School, the second-largest public school in Tennessee and one noted as among the best in the area. ``Some of the things we have wanted were rejected as elitist. There is a strong move toward sustaining the democratic nature of the school system. One of the things that was rejected for elitist reasons was teaching mythology. And for a while they didn't want any AP [advanced placement] courses.''

Students, teachers, and administrators point out, however, that in both public and private schools, the Bible plays an important part in shaping Southern values, regardless of whether a religion or Bible course is actually taught.

``We still believe that there are rights and there are wrongs,'' says Spencer J. McCallie III, the Harvard-educated, third-generation headmaster at McCallie. ``The Western standard for right and wrong did begin with the Bible, and we still think it is relevant.... Our teachers really take it seriously.'' McCallie students are expected to know the Bible in depth. In class, students pore over the Old and New Testaments, picking out names and places, genealogy, and common themes.

Most Southern schools pay at least lip service to an honor code.

A subtle aspect of communal codes is a respect for authority. While some parents are willing to leave what goes on in the classroom up to the teachers, that rule rarely holds on the basketball courts or the playing fields.

There parents are usually willing to offer their expertise. ``Whether they want it or not, [the school] gets a lot of input about sports,'' says Beth Hillhouse of Mountain Brook Junior High School in Birmingham, Ala.

``[Parents] figure that their child will get an education,'' says Catherine Seale, a senior at Mountain Brook. ``But in the South, there is such a large sports-going population, they want to make sure [their child] is on the No. 1 football team.''

Steve George, who coaches soccer at Girls Preparatory School in Chattanooga, grew up in Michigan. He sees the flip side of the coin with girls' athletics. During one game, one of his players knocked an opponent down; then, instead of going after the ball, stopped to help the other girl up. He sees this as a Southern phenomenon.

Jay Williams, now a first lieutenant in the Alaska Air National Guard, says grades at Knoxville's Farragut public high school were not that important. What was important was staying out of trouble and doing well on the track team. Nevertheless, at Farragut values were more or less uniform for the entire school - and the community.

Students were expected to adopt social roles and sex roles, as defined by the school and the Southern community, he adds.

``For the girls, it was like one big beauty contest and at the end of four years they announced the winner. For the boys it was an athletic contest and an ego contest. ... I think I learned more working at Levi Strauss.''

Nonetheless, Mr. Williams says he eventually plans to move back to east Tennessee. ``That's where my values are,'' he says. ``That's where my roots are.''

Gregg Middleton also plans to return to the South. Mike Deaderick, a history teacher at Memphis University School in Memphis, says that about 65 percent of the school's alumni live in the Memphis area. The percentage is probably even higher for the public school students.

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