Confessions of a liberal college professor

courtesy of Milton Ready


First, I’m not really all that liberal, progressive, radical, left-wing, elitist or, in truth, any of the other dismissive, mocking labels hurled at college professors by those who inhabit the swamps of right-wing thought these days. Gosh, I enjoyed saying that. I suspect that few radical professors even exist in today’s threatened, insecure, volatile academic environment. I’m also not very snarky, whatever that term means.

I’m from rural Texas, reared by parents who never finished middle, much less high school, and you were considered privileged if you had indoor plumbing, green grass and spoke as well as Lyndon Johnson, George W. Bush or Rick Perry. Really. Of course, they all went to college and graduated, though I doubt that any of them had more than a C average. Heck, with those credentials, you could even be president. But I suspect that whatever dollop of liberalism I have came from living in other foreign countries, besides Texas, and serving in the Army, an experience that taught me a lot about diversity, other cultures, gender equality and real patriotism. So did Asheville.

Religion? Early on I attended a small Missionary Baptist church, and when my family moved into a larger home on a sand-packed road close to Mickey Gilley’s roadhouse, of Urban Cowboy fame, I became a real Texas Southern Baptist. We’re not like Southern-lite Baptists; in fact, we were fundamentalists long before evangelists became politically correct. Did you know that Gilley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Lee Swaggart, perhaps one of the greatest gospel singers and lap swimmers of all time, were all bad-boy cousins, born-again sinners and sort of Baptists? As the saying went, a whole lot of shaking went on in that family. You should also realize that Texas Baptists are going to take over the country, just as they took Texas, when Rafael Eduardo “Ted” Cruz becomes president. You betcha.

The myth of liberal college professors comes from the perceived failures of the Woodstock generation and the 1960s countercultural revolution. As the story goes, all those hippies and freaks stayed in college, became professional students who accumulated lots of degrees, infiltrated faculties and, having failed to directly change the country, decided instead to brainwash a new generation of students with their leftist ideas. Others supposedly migrated to cities like Asheville and San Francisco, where they set up hippie communes, moved to the countryside, attended Rainbow Gatherings, started an eco-farm, brewed a few craft beers, tattooed everything except their genitals, grew some pot and eventually became quite respectable, if apolitical.

I arrived in Asheville not as a liberal but, rather, with all the ingredients of an anti-intellectualism that never came together: a fundamentalist, radical Protestant religion; a rural belief that practicality trumped “book larning”; and a healthy distrust of institutions, whether they were governments, banks or schools. Frankly, that mirrored the sentiments of most of my students at UNC Asheville, who mainly came from Western North Carolina and had conservative parents. Yet a funny thing happened on the way to the forum to discuss what humanists call “great ideas.” Asheville woke up from a 50-year slumber and reinvented itself while the rest of North Carolina, excepting Gov. Jim Hunt’s brief Camelot, went back to its reactionary roots.

Asheville, the new “Paris of the South” or “Appalachian Shangri-La” or “granola ghetto of the Carolinas” or whatever other alluring sobriquet you choose, became the living context in which UNCA students could examine not only “great ideas” but also their own lives. Mine, too. It was Asheville, not sneaky liberal professors, that changed them, just as it affected Western North Carolina and, to a lesser extent, the state as a whole. It still does.

In fact, except for a handful of professors who were mostly from Northern states, Asheville’s faculty hardly seemed liberal at all — not even close to those I’d known at the University of Georgia or in Texas. And in any case, liberalism died years ago, while most of the supposedly leftist professors have died, retired or taken up gardening. Take a close look at the UNCA faculty and alums who’ve served on either Asheville’s City Council or the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners — folks like Gene Rainey, Walt Boland and Nathan Ramsey — and you’ll find little hint of radicalism. That reflects Asheville’s organic nature. What other city in the South would have selected strong women like Leni Sitnick, from its Jewish community, and Terry Bellamy, an African-American, as mayors? They were reminders of the importance of determined, energetic women — blacks and gays, too — in the city’s history. Asheville changed the university, its students and me.

Asheville surely must be the protest capital not only of the mountains but maybe even of the region. You can rest assured that any issue involving women, gays and, to a lesser extent, race or ethnicity will inevitably draw women wearing black, gays wearing rainbow colors and the young wearing practically anything (or almost nothing) but with loads of tattoos and piercings as background. Remember the thong guy? Only in Asheville. Yet you will look in vain for any protests in such neighboring mountain counties as Madison, Avery and McDowell. Moreover, working-class students like those at UNCA simply can’t afford risky campus protests — nor can middle-class professors trying to establish a career.

That, however, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t fear the “Bern” of the millennials, those 81 million born between 1982 and 2002, as Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush have learned. Millennials have already decided, usually progressively, where they stand on almost all the issues that vex an older generation — abortion, gay marriage, immigration, women’s rights, education, the environment and America’s role in the world — and they don’t really care about Donald Trump’s hair, Ted Cruz’s birth or Hillary Clinton’s emails. And sooner or later, they will vote: an uneasy prospect for all.

The mean-spirited abuse hurled at college students and professors alike reflects a dying political paradigm coupled with a fear of the young. Yet the millennials’ inevitable parricide of conventional political thought may end up making today seem moderate, liberalism restrained and conservatism temperate, compared with what our children already envision. In other words, the world of the future just might look like Asheville’s present.

Milton Ready is a retired UNCA history professor and Mars Hill resident.



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12 thoughts on “Confessions of a liberal college professor

  1. jimmy

    Great post. And in these days of Trump, a pleasure to read something with grammar and vocabulary greater than that of a 5th grader.

  2. The Real World

    Prof Ready – I normally enjoy your articles but this one just seems all over the board, lacking in a broader reality and…….what’s the point you’re making here?

    “by those who inhabit the swamps of right-wing thought” — wow, that’s rich. Have you read articles and comment sections on sites like Huffington Post or Mother Jones, ETC ETC. Talk about swamps! Nasty, myopic vitriol you will find. Reactionary screeching, calling everyone a racist or some other self-serving label. A real intelligent, tolerant group they are.

    “You should also realize that Texas Baptists are going to take over the country.” What? Now, don’t be freaking me out like that. If that happens, you can count me out. Australia and New Zealand looking better and better. Both secular places which means you can reason with those people.

  3. Yep

    Interesting essay and he reminds us that we are STILL counting on our former Mayor Terry Bellamy to show her strength now in the realm of getting Asheville PUBLIC HOUSING cleaned up by implementing and supervising resident VOLUNTEERS to routinely PICK UP THEIR TRASH, so the TAXPAYERS don’t have to – once per week is no where NEAR enough for those communities. Does anyone know why public housing dwellers like to TRASH their ‘hood and blocks surrounding it ?
    So here’s to Bellamy’s COMMUNITY ORGANIZING strength as she gets these folks in line along with HACA Board Chairman
    Lewis Isaac. Next time you see them, ask them how that program is working.

    • hauntedheadnc

      Does anyone know why folks out in the county like to trash their hoods? Growing up down in Henderson County, I vividly remember “those” trailers with the cars up on blocks and the garbage all over the yard, as well as the illegal dumps you’d find here and there. There was a really good on where people would pull up to the side of Grant Mountain Road and unload their trash off the side of the bank there.

      I notice you never mention anything like that though, preferring as you do to harp on public housing.

      • Yep

        We don’t have trailers intown Worst Asheville, only the blight of nasty public housing which has ruined Asheville.

        • hauntedheadnc

          Hm… So your perfect Asheville, which has been ruined — according to you — by many things, not just public housing, would do… what… for the poor and the homeless?

          But just to clarify here, you do acknowledge that white people out in the county are every bit as filthy as “you know who” (who you know you despise) there in town, right?

          • Yep

            No, WHO? Perfect Asheville would have ZERO public housing like otherlovely resort cities, like Breckenridge CO for instance…not ONE unit of subsidized housing.

            ‘Life is never fair, but only government is capable of making unfairness compulsory, and pretending that
            the result is equality’

          • hauntedheadnc

            As much as I appreciate your candor, Mr. Caudle, in saying that the poor can go to hell, I wonder if you’re aware exactly how quickly the economy of Asheville would implode without those armies of low-income working poor.

  4. boatrocker

    Oh for the love of (fill in appropriate mythical deity), you had to bring up the thong guy again. He was my neighbor at one point when I lived closer to downtown .

    Excellent article! Thanks for dispelling the right wing myth that improving yourself through edumaction is a bad thing. Just the other day, Trump lauded the under educated after winning a caucus.

    Much like the media, academia is only as liberal as its owners who control the purse strings.

    • boatrocker

      I get it, Ashe Villager, education and self improvement is baaaad.

      Please tell us how education is a bad thing. What is wrong for leaning left? Write your opinions here.

      I apologize for all the lefties sticking up for whole American citizens not starving to death for Wall St (a person under Scalia).
      Care to explain how that works? Didn’t think so.

      We the ones who use articulate writing skills and critical thinking skills to post comments here (we check our sources) to evaluate the Sarah Palin anti education

  5. Lulz

    LOL, out of touch you are lulz. You live in an era where those you despise, and make no doubt about it you do despise, are about fed up with hot air blow up dolls telling them they are bad. All the while they watch their incomes suffer, standard of living go down, in debt, and no way out. Best you go crawl under a rock because college professors are guilty of STUDENT DEBT yet for some odd reason don’t equate their privilege with it. And what’s even more ridiculous, assume they can relate to dumb kids who are in debt with worthless degrees that can’t get them decently employed lulz.

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