Paul Gaston at the Organic School Centennial Celebration, 2007
December 9, 2009
We aren’t all lucky enough to have been born the grandson of a 19th Century reformer who founded a Utopian colony. We weren’t raised in that colony, nor did we all attend a school that provided us with a lifelong love of learning and a feeling that, if the world needed changing, we were the ones to do it.
But Paul Gaston was. In Coming of Age in Utopia/The Odyssey of an Idea, he gives us a look at the elements that made him what he became as a result of his extraordinary birthright and upbringing. It’s a book by turns educational, inspiring, and even charming; revealing the thoughts and motivations of a truly elegant mind. It tells in readable prose the story of his life: Growing up in the little town of Fairhope, Alabama, saturated with the economic philosophy of Henry George as interpreted by Gaston’s grandfather, Ernest B. Gaston.
It was a heady place to begin. In those days the town was paradise for the boy, the only son of parents who encouraged him always to be himself. Further, he was educated in the town’s remarkable School of Organic Education, which emphasized the growth of the whole child and taught, along with the traditional academic subjects, dancing, singing, and athletics—all without the pressure of performance measures (grades) or the prospect of failure. Gaston acknowledges his debt to his parents for his commitment to social change as an end and his school for the education and personal balance to achieve what he might.
Coming of Age in Utopia takes the reader from a small-town, sheltered existence to an impressive, productive, and highly visible life as a citizen of the world. Gaston’s talent as a scholar and historian takes him on travels to Europe and lands him in a career as a professor of Southern history at the prestigious University of Virginia. Along the way he builds a loving family with the seemingly perfect wife—the beautiful and brilliant Mary Wilkinson of Frogmore Manor, Frogmore, South Carolina. The couple are deeply involved in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s, and Gaston sees as part of his personal mission the need to touch the minds and hearts of young Southerners who come to his University classes with a fixed notion of honor and tradition, and to challenge them through exposure to the reality of history and enlighten them with a broader vision.
Gaston chose to teach Southern history at a Southern university at a point in time at which the very past seemed to be changing. He chose U VA and stayed there because he was confronted with a peculiarly "Southern" mindset--the tradition-bound kids who felt it necessary to preserve every vestige of the Old South (read "segregation") in their power. They were to have some power, being born to it in Virginia, and had been indoctrinated in the Gone With the Wind side of things. As a professor of history he had a unique opportunity to clobber them over the heads with the real history, and being the gentleman he is and always was, he didn't clobber but engaged their minds and challenged their cherished heritage through facts.
Because of the time and place, he was called upon to go public with his knowledge and to stand by his principles. He joined protest groups and was president of at least one anti-segregation activist organization. His classes influenced countless students, probably in many cases against their will. At Charlottesville's first sit-in, he was hit in the face and later found himself facing the hitters in a court of law. The tires of his car were slashed, and his family's life was disrupted by hateful telephone calls at all hours. In the meantime he met with Julian Bond, Dr. Martin Luther King, John Lewis and other stars of the early Civil Rights struggle as they worked together to make positive changes in the South and throughout the country.
Coming of Age in Utopia shows a natural progression of the man who was raised in Fairhope to honor its purpose of changing the world through economic reform; and educated at the Organic School to fulfill his own goals of opening minds, all the while (and equally importantly) living as fine a life as he found humanly possible. He examines his own motives at times, expresses regrets, and duly accepts the many honors and accolades that come his way.
It is a compelling tale, filled with important events, peopled with powerful characters, and revealing insights gained through study and experience. It is a good, solid book to read, transporting the reader from a place called Fairhope in a certain halcyon time to the larger world at a crucial point in history.
Written with optimism, good will, and grace, Coming of Age in Utopia is a book about a great deal more than the little town of Fairhope. It is about the finding and fulfilling of a personal mission, living a full and happy life--and leaving the world a better place.