by William Trollinger
My first college teaching position was at the College of the Ozarks (C of O). When I say this to people who know something about the school – who have heard that it has been rated the most anti-LGBTQ college in the nation and/or that the president issued an edict that the school’s athletic teams will not play any school that has any athletes that kneel during the national anthem — the response is often a combination of astonishment and horror.
In response, I point out that the college I taught at was very different from today’s Christian Right bastion. Even the name was different: The School of the Ozarks (S of O).
I arrived at campus in the fall of 1984, a shaggy-haired, left-leaning, newly-minted Ph.D from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I had never heard of Branson, I did (and do) not care for mainstream country music, and I was now living in Nashville West. Coming from Madison, where I had been depressed for weeks because a New Deal Democrat defeated a mayoral candidate with socialist-leanings, the politics of southwest Missouri were farther to the Right than anything I had ever experienced (for one thing, the Klan was active in the area). And having never lived in the South, I was now just ten miles from the Arkansas border.
In short, the move from Madison to Branson was jarring. Ditto for the move from the University of Wisconsin to School of the Ozarks, where I was assigned courses ranging from Colonial America to the American Presidency to U.S. Women’s History, where I was required to teach eleven courses over the fall, spring, and summer semesters (a 4-4-3 load), and where in academic year 1987-88 I taught 323 students (all the while trying to finish book revisions).
For all of this, I look back on my four years at S of O with great affection. As is still the case today, students worked on campus for their tuition, room, and board. Most students came from Missouri or Arkansas, and many or most were first-generation college students. Some came from families of very limited means – I had students who had grown up without indoor plumbing in their homes – and this was their chance to secure a college education. And they knew it. While many arrived at S of O poorly prepared for higher education, I have never taught students more eager to learn (one sign of which being how many students wanted to take independent study classes with me, on top of their regular load). Thanks to my time there, I have retained an extreme impatience with upper-middle-class students who refuse to see that a college education is a privilege most people on the planet do not have.
I will never forget my first commencement ceremony at the school. Exhausted from my first year at the school, and vocally unhappy that I was required to attend and wear regalia, I was in the bathroom washing my hands before I had to line up for the processional. I looked up into the mirror, and saw two men in their dress overalls – who I took to be a father and grandfather of a graduate – staring at me. I turned around, and the father nervously said to me, “Are you a professor?”
Thus ended my whining.
I assume that there are some current C of O faculty members who would share some of these sentiments. But in contrast with the militaristic patriotism that is at the heart of President Jerry Davis’ claustrophobic educational vision, at S of O we offered our students something much more in keeping with a traditional liberal arts education.
One way to see this is to contrast the outside speakers who have come to C of O recently with the speakers who came to S of O when I was there. Speakers at C of O convocations and forums over the past few years have included Newt Gingrich, Ben Carson, Sarah Palin, and the late Charles Krauthammer (and of course, there was the recent visit of “Fox and Friends”). In contrast, during my four years at S of O students had the opportunity to hear feminist author Susan Brownmiller, First Amendment absolutist and anti-abortion activist Nat Hentoff, former Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern, and social theorist Jeremy Rifkin, who spoke in a variety of classes and then – in a remarkable evening convocation to an overflow crowd – on the dangers of technological “progress.”
Moving from Madison to Branson was a shock to my system. But I could not be more pleased to have spent the first four years of my college teaching career at the School of the Ozarks. And while I could not have known what was coming to the school that I had come to love, I was so fortunate to have driven away the very week that Jerry Davis arrived.
Even if I had wanted to, I would not have been allowed to stay.