Knoxville's Brainpower Quotient

And other things I should blog about: ponytails on City Council, and a notable celebration

A few weeks ago, the online magazine Portfolio.com released an interesting list of the top 220 metropolitan areas in the United States in terms of "brainpower;" that is, ranked by educational achievement. It got some circulation via Huffington Post and other organs.

I peered into it with some trepidation, looking at the bottom first, relieved that my hometown wasn't in the dumbest 20—though Spartanburg, Kingsport, and Hickory, N.C., were. Knoxville was actually toward the front of the pack at number 85. Second in Tennessee, a little bit behind Nashville, but way ahead of Chattanooga (156) and Memphis (142).

Of course, some cities we're used to comparing ourselves with did much better and proved the list had no anti-South bias. Durham was 4th in the nation, followed by Raleigh (12), Lexington (32), Huntsville, Ala. (38), Atlanta (42), Columbia, S.C. (54), Charlotte (55).

But Knoxville did outpace Savannah (107), Birmingham (112), Greenville, S.C. (117), Louisville, Ky., (122), Winston-Salem (132), Roanoke (138), Greensboro (141), and Lynchburg, Va. (161).

Well, some might respond, that's just because of UT and ORNL. These major brainy institutions surely have some positive effect. But then again, this is a metro-area study of the educational achievement of the 465,326 people over 25 in the five-county metro area, which also includes Pigeon Forge, as well as several rural communities I don't need to get in trouble for naming, but which aren't necessarily known as brainy.

Still, this survey brought up one particular comparison that often comes up when people grouse about what Knoxville lacks. Some folks have been fatalistic about the fact that Knoxville will never again have a successful independent bookstore. I always point out that Asheville still has Malaprops, a 30-year-old institution still going strong—and Asheville's less than half the size of Knoxville.

Well, Asheville's different, they say. Asheville's way smarter than Knoxville. I've been hearing that for years. It's why Asheville is still ahead of Knoxville in downtown development, in art galleries, in interesting restaurants worth driving from out of state to try.

But according to this survey, metro Knoxville is actually a little more educated, on average, than metro Asheville, which came in at number 94.

Nothing to brag about, maybe. But to me, it gives us less excuse not to be able to support some basic brainy amenities, like a good independent bookstore.

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A colleague at another paper declared that my old friend Charlie Thomas, recently appointed by City Council to serve the remaining 11 months of the term of a vacating member, is the first Knoxville city councilman in history to sport a ponytail. By the strictest use of the term "City Councilman," that's probably true.

City Council has been the official name of Knoxville's chief legislative body only since 1923. And while I can't picture every member of City Council since 1923, I can picture several: John T. O'Connor, Cas Walker, Weston Fulton, Lowell Blanchard, George Dempster, Max Friedman, Dwight Kessel, Alex Harkness, Theotis Robinson, Kyle Testerman. If any of them ever sat in Council with a guy who wore a ponytail, I'd have heard about it by now.

But assumptions get more slippery the farther back you go. Before 1923, municipal legislators were, depending on the years, called commissioners or, more frequently, aldermen. However, the Board of Aldermen of the 19th century was sometimes referred to as City Council. And we really don't have any idea what most of them looked like, especially those who served before the Civil War. I suspect several of the earliest municipal hairdos did include some anterior flourish.

We do know about one ponytail on a member of a prominent legislative assembly. The constitutional convention met on Gay Street to draw up the constitution for a new state—215 years ago this week, as it happens. (It's an occasion I think Knoxville should celebrate more than we do. The spot where it happened, now the parking lot on the southwest corner of Gay and Church, is unmarked in any way, but it seems to me that this spot, where the territory's most ambitious men met for three weeks in 1796, is the birthplace of Tennessee.)

That assembly did include one young man with a ponytail, and it was more flamboyant than Charlie's. His ponytail was red, and he tied it back with an eelskin.

His name was Andrew Jackson. He looked a little more dashing in those days, some 40 years before he posed for the $20 bill.

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By the way, that date, Feb. 6, 1796, was on the Tennessee state seal for decades as the state's birthdate, but it won't be celebrated in any way I know of this Sunday. What will be celebrated that day, about a block away from where the constitutional convention met, is the career of our most successful movie director, Clarence Brown. The Knoxville High alum and UT grad grew up in the mill-town section of North Knoxville. He occasionally paid homage to Knoxville in his films, but never more impressively than when he became the most generous alumni donor in UT history.

For the last couple of years, one of my favorite peeves was the fact that, even though in recent years Brown has been the subject of impressive scholarly works and public screenings as far away as Ireland and Spain, none of his movies have been shown in public in his hometown in more than a quarter of a century.

The Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound, in collaboration with the East Tennessee Historical Society and the Tennessee Theatre, will rob me of that talking point on Sunday afternoon with a once-in-a-lifetime—literally, perhaps—screening of Brown's 1925 silent film, The Eagle, at the Tennessee Theater. It'll be preceded by some films related to Brown's life and career across the street at the History Center, including a shortened version of the 1935 Greta Garbo classic, Anna Karenina. Come out to watch Rudolph Valentino taking orders from the kid from Happy Holler.