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By Robert Beeland
“[A]t Sewanee they don’t even teach you what water is.” Maybe you’ve seen or heard this quote before, from Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. I’ve seen it printed on posters, emblazoned on can koozies, flaunted on Facebook walls as a braggadocious affirmation of just how hard we party here on the Mountain. There’s even a Newsweek article from 2002 titled “Southern Charm,” written by a Sewanee alum, which makes mention of the quote and claims that he and his classmates “were a breed apart in how [they drank].” We don’t get taught what water is because we’re too busy drinking booze! Right?
In actuality, this fun excerpt lacks some important context. The full quote from Faulkner’s novel reads, “I says no I never had university advantages because at Harvard they teach you how to go for a swim at night without knowing how to swim and at Sewanee they don’t even teach you what water is.” Perhaps exactly what Faulkner meant to disparage in this assertion is not obvious, but it seems clear that this shouldn’t be a point of pride.
Sewanee is steeped in the literary tradition—and still a place for writers of all styles. This does not mean, however, that we are any less susceptible when reading and writing to the dangers of selective attention than anyone else. During my time as the Editor-in-Chief of The Purple, the phenomena of fake news has certainly found the national limelight, but perhaps only as a symptom of a larger problem in the way we read and write (which is far from new). Terms like post-truth get thrown around often enough to make even a careful reader question whether or not reliable news exists. Journalism in America is certainly in a time of crisis.
Places like Sewanee in particular, where the murmuring histories of old, gowned, white men reappear at any moment where “heritage” is threatened, are particularly vulnerable to the threat of historical revisionism. It would seem, moreover, that those issues which first appear to be sequestered to the past are the most susceptible to their truths’ distortions. I spent many hours this semester researching the debate surrounding the movement of the Edmund Kirby-Smith monument on campus and, as Confederate statues are moved across the country, I continue to marvel at the debate surrounding not only the roles that these men played in our pasts, but continue to play in our presents.
That debate revolves around a philosophical question: How should we reconcile our past with our present? How might we build a Sewanee that we are proud of while understanding its current deficiencies? To merely point to injustices must not satisfy us—only through deliberate, personal action to ameliorate the ways in which we function as individuals within our community might we change Sewanee for the better. Work on a place which you inhabit is, indeed, a kind of work on yourself.
Loving Sewanee, then, must involve a journalistic impartiality. We will never be fully rid of our biases, yet we must first confront Sewanee—and then ourselves—as objectively as we can. Only then might we consider what Sewanee should be.
Robert, very well put article, and it’s a point that needed to be expressed. Thank you for stating that we must be mindful of our past and must improve upon the ethos that we inherited, and make something good out of it all, for every one…..Leave the bias at the door and welcome everyone to the table…. we are more than we were, many party weekends ago!
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