Carla Carlisle on the learning curve

It was a quiet day here in Woe-be-gone country. The cows due to calve didn’t budge. The ram supposed to I always like to tell folks that I was born on the banks of the Yazoo River. ‘Yazoo’ is Choctaw for death and it feels pure Mark Twain to be born on the River of Death.

If my audience is still interested, I tell them that the Yazoo flows beside the Tallahatchie River and sing my version of Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe, ‘today Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge’. The singer-songwriter was born in Chickasaw County, and, much as we all loved that song, it was a stark reminder that, despite the fertile soil of the Delta, Mississippi was-and still is- the poorest state in the Union.

Which might make you wonder how I got where I am today. You could say the journey began
when I was still nestled in a row of all-white babies and my father was at the bank, opening the account called my ‘college fund’. He was a student himself at the time, back from the war and studying medicine on the GI Bill. Money was tight, but opening a college fund in the name of his new baby was as instinctive as counting my fingers and toes.

College funds are a sacred covenant, one made by parents all over America to their children, together with trips to the dentist, tetanus shots, new shoes in September. And, if I had gone to the University of Mississippi as my parents did, the fund would probably have paid my way. State universities, called ‘public’ colleges in the USA , guarantee lowcost tuition to state residents. But by the time I was college age, I’d set my sights on a private Ivy League one (all the Ivy League colleges in the USA are private, that is, not government funded). Like most American students, my tuition was paid for with a mix of my parents’ money (the fund), a scholarship and a student loan.
It wasn’t until I came to England to write about the 19thcentury romantics, and often found myself the only woman around a dinner table who’d been to university, that I began to understand how lucky I’d been.

I’ve witnessed a great sea change in this country. Now, the daughters and sons of my English friends consider university a natural stage in their lives. This has happened in less than three decades, and it has been as revolutionary in its impact as the GI Bill was in America. Those graduates became the kind of parents who believed in-and invested in-higher education for their children.

And ‘invested’ is the key word here. In America, it’s part of the ethos: you save for your children’s university education. It’s deeply ingrained, although now the costs have reached traumatic levels. There is a strong tradition of endowments and student loans, but graduates emerge with debts -Michelle and Barack Obama admitted that they were both still paying off law-school loans until Dreams of my Father became a surprise bestseller.

In America, setting aside money for higher education is instilled in the culture. Here, the timing of Lord Browne’s proposals couldn’t be worse. They have come at a time when most parents have not-and cannot-set aside money at this level for their children. They have come at a time when young people tenacious enough to go to university and acquire the debts will emerge with a degree that doesn’t guarantee a job. Between the concept that university education is valuable and the reality that each generation must invest in the next falls a shadow.

Auden queried university education for the masses, saying that America was a place where ‘even a hat rack can get a degree’. But I’m a beneficiary of a culture that believed that education was right up there with love and fun as the best gift you could give your children. Without my time at college, I might not be on the back page of Country Life, but still on the banks of the Yazoo. As for Miss Gentry, before she wrote Ode to Billie Joe, she’d read philosophy at UCLA. Proof that you never know where your learning will take you.