I think education, particularly higher ed, is the key to the American middle class dream, such as it still exists.
Over lunch one day, I asked some of my aunts and uncles why they thought anyone should go to college. What does college do? Mind you, everyone at the table had at least one degree; it was a skewed sample. The general consensus was that college is where you learn how to learn. After several more years of mulling it over, I haven’t come up with any more succinct explanation of why college is worthwhile, though I believe in my blood and bones that it is.
Even my great-grandmother Mary Kerr Breckenridge attended Howard College in Missouri for three years, the very school her own mother attended before the Civil War. Her 1887 essay on the value of educating girls, “Grow to Your Full Height”, is posted on this site.
The gentleman in the picture is not where the story of education and my family begins, but it’s as good a place to start as any. The grown-up is my great-grandfather, Bruce Ryburn Payne, known as Doc, and the baby is my father, Bruce R. Payne II. My father grew up to be a master of nuance and connotation. A political science major, he appreciated the subtleties of language.
Now, Doc was the first president of Peabody College, now the #1 Education department in the U.S. and part of Vanderbilt University. Why this is extra cool: in the post-Civil-War South, there were no high schools. None. Nada. What the war hadn’t devastated, post-war occupation had. So George Peabody, entrepreneur and philanthropist, decided to start a teachers’ college where each student would, on graduation, be prepared to evangelize: convince a Southern village/town/small city to find the funds to start a school and pay them to teach it. Part of their education included deportment and manners; they went to their Deans’ homes every Sunday for tea. If a student had visitors he could bring them along. Excuses were not made.
Peabody hired Bruce Payne, a professor of philosophy and education at the University of Virginia (previously at William and Mary) to lead the way. He had been the youngest professor at UVa, and the only professor on the faculty of the College of William and Mary not to have fought in the Civil War. He seems to have been a thoughtful man, and the subject of many books and studies. He wanted very much to renew awareness of Southern culture along with giving its residents the tools to understand it. Only recently did I search out his own bibliography. As a professor, of course he wrote a great deal, including a few textbooks still available on Amazon!
My uncle Carr Payne (a retired psychology professor at Georgia Tech) has fond memories of visiting the Peabody campus as a boy. Both Uncle Carr and my father attended the Peabody Demonstration School as boys, and finished college at Vanderbilt (with hiatuses for World War II).
So, my great-grandfather built a teachers’ college from the ground up that has an illustrious presence to this day, and we’re very proud of him, but the story of education and my family doesn’t begin or end there. Everyone in my family goes to college, seem to always have, and many have graduate degrees. They’ve done a great deal of good with them, contributing to cities, counties, clubs and churches in leadership, volunteer time and labor.
In my immediate family, my mother and grandmother were Phi Beta Kappa (as is sister #1). Mother loved stories, and always knew the next perfect book for you to read. That’s no simple trick. We were an Army family, and moved every two to three years; we had books in every room in the house, yet she always knew where each one was. Sister #1 is now a National Board Certified career high school teacher who also teaches night classes at George Mason University and lectures internationally on digital rights; sister #2 (in birth order, not in affection) recently left being a school audiologist to become her county’s elected Treasurer; sister #3 (again, in birth order, not in affection) is a motive force for fundraising behind the Wings Over America college scholarship fund for dependent spouses and children of U.S. Navy personnel. Coming along last, I’ve spent a great deal of my career as a trainer and teacher in subjects as varied as Anatomy and Physiology (as Department Chair, thank you very much) and business bookkeeping. Beyond teaching workshops in arcane historical subjects and historical and practical brewing, for the first time in my adult life I’m not working as an instructor, but it will always be a topic I care about very much.
This portion of my website relates some of my own experiences in education, and the accomplishments of some of my family.