What scholars think about the world at large tends to come not from the world at large, but from other scholars.  Without much experience of ordinary people, many of them take for granted that ordinary folk are bigots, especially in certain parts of the country.  It amazes me how hard it is to crack the shell that protects such opinions from reality.

At a faculty Christmas party a few years ago, a colleague was intrigued to learn that my wife and I spend part of every summer in a poor section of the Appalachians.   Why on earth retreat to a place like that?

He was a nice guy – most of my colleagues are nice people -- and he understood the pleasure of visiting family and old friends.  He also liked vacations.  But he definitely didn’t understand the refreshment of getting out of the incestuous university culture into a different kind of world with different kinds of people.

So tell me how it’s different, he asked, and I obliged.

One of the points I emphasized was how important extended family is in eastern Kentucky, by contrast with a high-tech, high-mobility burg like Austin.  Having grown up, unlike my wife, in an ultra-nuclear family, I’m fascinated by close family ties.  Everyone up in the hollers knows his relatives out to double second cousins once removed.  When introductions are made, the first thing people want to know is “Who are your people?”

Instantly my colleague told me, yes, he had been disturbed to see a small racist demonstration at a highway intersection when he was driving through a southeastern town.


Puzzled by what seemed a change of subject, I explained that white supremacist organizations are pretty much unknown where we go in the summer.  I understood that he viewed them as central to southern culture.  What puzzled me was why he seemed to think that I did too.

Finally I realized that when I had used the term “clan,” meaning extended family, he had assumed that I was talking about the KKK.  Never mind the context.  After all, man, the south!  What else could I have been talking about?  (Besides, wouldn’t I have had all the same opinions he did?)

Easy mistake, easily correctible.  Or so I thought.  Quickly I explained that I hadn’t meant “Klan,” with a big K, but “clan,” with a little “c.”  Relatives, you know.  Your family.  Your kin.  But it was as though he couldn’t hear me.  Extended family didn’t have a slot in his fixed view of the southeastern United States.  White supremacy did.

According to a certain common view, higher education makes people more broad-minded and open to new information.   But in their own way, universities can be narrower than any village.  I would say that to live in that world is a lot like living up a holler, but a holler has a lot more variety.