Essay: Why Rural Teachers Can’t Teach Rural Literature

Recently the “standards and testing movement” stumbled in the wake of ever-growing anti-test resistance orchestrated by average citizens.  The stumble came in the form of federal legislation allowing states to decide how much testing they will do in their own public schools beyond a federal minimum.  Pearson and other textbook and testing companies fiercely lobbied to avert the legislation, but to no avail.  The “Every Student Succeeds Act” was a rare example of the fact that democracy in the United States has not yet completely eroded.  But with respect to public education, there is still a long way to go.  Corporations have controlled education policy for several decades, urging legislation that will culminate in ever-larger corporate profits.   They were behind the ideological “take-over” of the federal Department of Education such that the only type of research that receives funding is that which will culminate in ever-larger corporate profits—research that must tie an instructional act or a curricular choice to results on an expensive standardized test.  Corporations were behind the establishment of common standards for everyone, so that they could sell their products from one end of the country to another.

Teachers making their own instructional and curricular decisions are an obstacle to the pursuit of corporate profit.  Everything that can be done to remove professional judgment from teachers has therefore received a hearing and has been given a try.  But what corporations and politicians have discovered is that profit-generating instructional and curricular decisions have left the nation slipping in international comparisons, have left the nation burdened by an achievement gap that is growing after decades of shrinking, have left an outraged public tired of dealing with school-based angst and depression among their over-tested and over-stressed children; in short, their decisions have made a mess of things.  But while Pearson suffered a blow when the Every Child Succeeds Act passed, indeed, its stock price plummeted the very next day, the residual grip of corporate America on the educational fate of children remains strong.

Rural teachers can’t assign rural stories or rural novels because they are not on the tests that students still must take, so rural children grow up with an incomplete understanding of their own rural place or the role that community once played in the well-being of their rural place.  In the absence of that understanding they assume that the lack of economic opportunity all around them is something that just happened naturally, that no one willed it to happen, and no one profited from it happening—both erroneous and dangerous assumptions.

Everyone understands the power of the profit motive in the United States.  Half of a trillion dollars is spent on public education in this country each year.  That’s a lot of money and corporations want a much larger chunk of it.  But what is particularly insidious is the extent to which controlling the curriculum through standards and testing, that is, keeping rural novels away from rural children by making sure they are not in the standards and not on the tests, contributes to the inability of the next generation to understand the extent to which they are victims of policy that enriches some at the expense of many, victims of policy that slowly erodes their own community and others like it, and victims of policy that leads them to believe that in order to be successful, they must leave.  That’s an American tragedy.

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Welcome to the Rural Lit R.A.L.L.Y. Initiative

There is a saying:  “You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.”

Out of print for decades, and long-since discarded from all but research university libraries, wonderful works of rural based literature are disappearing every day.  Variously called “farm novels,” “regional novels,” or “local color fiction,” these works portray farm life, and just as importantly, American life, perceptively and in great depth.  Written before the age of digitization, these works are being lost before they can be saved.  To lose them is to lose a piece of our collective history; a piece of who we are, as a people and as a nation.

The Rural Lit RALLY Initiative, from its inception as a tangible effort in April 2011, has worked hard to renew interest in this important part of our nation’s memory.

We have established the Rural Lit Library, which currently holds over 100 volumes of these rare manuscripts.  We have established collaborative efforts with similar organizations, such as the Ruth Suckow Memorial Association, Bess Streeter Aldrich Foundation, Mari Sandoz Heritage Society, Norwegian American Historical Association, and the Danish American Archive and Library.  We have partnered with the Redmond Historical Society, Redmond Library, and Buena Vista University to hold exhibits dedicated to spreading the word about our homegrown rural authors and their works.

We have teamed up with those who are also reading and writing about this almost-lost literature, such as Nancy Gluck and James Rosenzweig, as well as those currently working and writing in related genres, such as Page Lambert and Linda M. Hasselstrom.

We have been able to get young adults reading and writing about rural literature through a grant funded program; we currently have three reading groups in place, with an average of 19 students reading one rural novel in each of the two academic semesters.  We are always looking for new reading groups – if you are a teacher (or know of one) who might be interested in supervising a student reading group, please contact us for more information.

We are honored to be partnering with Susan Taylor Chehak and Foreverland Press in our newest venture – re-publishing some of the out of print farm novels in e-format, making them easily accessible to all while also preserving them for future generations.

We are pleased with the results of our efforts to date, but realize that much more work needs to be done!

We ask YOUR help, as someone with an interest in preserving Americana in the written word.  Whether you are a reader, a writer, or an educator, please share with us any ideas that you may have for restoring these works to our collective memory and use.

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