Rural Literature and the “Rural Question” Elevated by the Election of Donald Trump

By Paul Theobald

For the past thirty-five years I have been a student of rural history and rural literature. But as a Midwesterner, like so many others of my ilk, I’ve never been inclined to wear my accomplishments, such as they are, on my sleeve. Today I’m going to make an exception, because the election of Donald Trump via the electoral college and the sweep of states that might be labeled, at some level, rural, has left people everywhere asking why rural people feel such an affinity with the Republican Party? On the surface, it makes no sense.

I have published well over 50 journal articles and book chapters, plus several books, and almost all of that work has focused on the rural experience in this country. I bring this up merely to point out that what I have to say has more warrant than most of the answers you will hear from high-profile journalists, living in the nation’s urban centers, who wouldn’t know how to begin a conversation with a farmer to save themselves.

Let me start with a typical disclaimer, rural America is not monolithic, there are differences that stem from history, geography, demography, ethnicity, religion, etc. For example, there are Progressives living in rural America. Indeed, rural America was once the heart and soul of Progressivism in this country, among Democrats and Republicans alike. The Great Plains, in particular, served as the democratic conscience of the nation in the early years of the 20th century. Simply put, the great-grandparents of the current generation of voters would have never countenanced the near-total capitulation of the Republican Party to the whims and desires of the corporate elite. But the current generation has. Why?

The question seems more acute when you look at the socio-economic make-up of rural America and the agenda of the Republican Party. Rural people love their public schools and will steadfastly defend them, yet the Republican Party wants to do away with public schools. Rural dwellers are disproportionately dependent on Medicare and social security, yet the Republican Party wants to do away with these programs, or, short of that, dramatically decrease the cost through benefit reduction. Rural dwellers are disproportionately represented on ACA roles, yet the Republican Party wants to do away with Obamacare. In my state, Nebraska, the construction of a foreign pipeline threatens the state’s largest resource, the Ogallala Aquifer, something absolutely pivotal to successful farming and ranching here, but Nebraskans elected Republican Congressional leaders who support the pipeline.

Rural dwellers, in the main, are not wealthy. In fact, the median welfare recipient in this country is rural, white, 40 years old, and male, not a black “welfare queen” living in the inner city. The nation’s poverty rate is highest among rural dwellers. The “get big or get out” philosophy that has driven agricultural policy in this country for the past 50 years, orchestrated by the Republican Party on behalf of agribusiness behemoths like Con Agra and Monsanto, has left rural communities reeling, struggling to keep their schools, their hospitals, their newspapers, and other businesses. Despite decades of slow community erosion, a process that has enriched mega-corporations, and not just agribusinesses, but also box-stores like Wal-Mart; rural people continue to vote overwhelmingly Republican. Again, why?

The answer is not an easy one. There are historical forces at work in this, and they are not directly observable. One of my greatest laments concerning many excellent rural novels is the off-hand way characters refer to Native Americans as “savages,” clearly a class of people far beneath hard-working white farmers. Natives were a nuisance to be cleared away from the advance of white, Christian settlement. Anyone who has read the novels of Laura Ingalls Wilder will have a good sense for this. This sentiment didn’t appear naturally, but was in fact cultivated by western philosophy concerned with advancing free market capitalism. John Locke famously defended the process of enclosing the commons and dispersing tens of thousands of rural dwellers, arguing that they simply must muster the requisite “industriousness” to make their way in the world. Max Weber and R. H. Tawney documented the ideological fit between Locke’s emerging capitalism and Protestant Christianity. Anyone unwilling to labor in the earth and render it productive was ignoring the will of God, and under such conditions they should fully expect to have God’s earth taken from them. All of this legitimated the dispossession of Native groups and the settlement efforts of white Christians. Once again, sadly, you can see this sentiment clearly in the nation’s rural literature.

But I want to stress again, the subtle racism represented in the rationale for white settlement, for manifest destiny, was not something sewn into the very nature of humankind, but rather was something to which humanity could easily fall victim. While there can be no denying that ease, the sweep of rural history in this country, as mentioned earlier, was typically on the side of justice, at least outside of the South. The success of Progressive Era reforms were largely attributable to the success of America’s first rural populist moment during the 1890s. Also noted earlier, the rural focus on justice, on checking corporate power, dominated political discourse among rural dwellers early in the twentieth century.

Where is all of this leading? I believe the subtle racism cultivated specifically to legitimate the dispossession of Native Americans has been cultivated again, only this time it is blacks and Hispanics who are not doing Christ’s will. It’s blacks and Hispanics who are aborting babies, who are hanging around inner cities unwilling to lift a finger, waiting in line for their welfare checks, or worse, waiting for the right moment to commit a violent crime. Somehow or another, these are the people who are responsible for community erosion, for low paying jobs in rural America, for taxes being too high, etc.

Again, humanity doesn’t “naturally” develop this kind of racial explanation for one’s circumstances, this kind of racial explanation has to be cultivated. The Republican Party, having made the decision to capitulate to the super wealthy, had a problem on its hands. They needed people to vote for them. Thus the campaign of misinformation intended to lure rural dwellers into, or keep them in, the Republican fold. Corporate America, that is to say huge corporations owned and controlled by a tiny sliver of the population, orchestrated this campaign through “the nightly news,” with a constant barrage of coverage detailing black urban crime, lazy black welfare recipients, with coverage that made the Republican Party out to be the party of family values, the anti-abortion party, the party of guns: the party that would support any and every wedge issue that might generate a vote from someone who would otherwise be a victim of Republican policy.

Huge sums were devoted to this campaign, even the creation of a new network, Fox, dedicated to ramping up racialized explanations of why America’s middle class was shrinking, why a sense of community was eroding. The Republican Party became the defenders of white America, the anti-immigrant, anti-gay, anti-Muslim, anti-minority party. And since through misinformation and outright lies rural Americans came to believe that immigrants and minorities are diminishing their life prospects, that Muslims are out to kill Americans, they chose to vote Republican—even while recognizing that Republican politicians work against their interests. They believe that if the Republicans can stop immigration (which, of course, they have never had any intention of doing, immigrant and refugee labor is crucial to maximizing corporate profits), protect them from Muslim terror attacks, and punish minority free-loaders, their lives will improve to the point that they can make up for the lost social security and Medicare benefits, the lost schools and hospitals.

Of course, Donald Trump is something different altogether. In just his first week he created a diplomatic mess with one of our nation’s largest trading partners—the largest trading partner for the state of Nebraska—a circumstance that has upset many farmers and ranchers who no doubt voted for this man. Inside that same week, Trump vowed to renew construction on the Keystone Pipeline, an effort that leans on a weak legal argument: namely, that a foreign corporation can declare eminent domain in the United States. And then, of course, there’s the perhaps the stupidest diplomatic idea of all time, asking a foreign power to build a wall to keep out its own citizens. The problem with this last blunder is that Donald Trump has never shown anything remotely like the courage required to admit that he made a mistake, meaning that US taxpayers may have to spend $27 billion on a wall at a time when illegal immigration rates have been steadily declining.

The question regarding the fidelity of rural dwellers to the Republican agenda depends largely on how aggressive the party is with respect to legislating ever greater economic inequality by cutting the programs on which rural people rely. There is undoubtedly a tipping point and the Republican leadership knows this. Some believe they should merely come as close to that point as possible. Others believe they should grasp for everything while they can, regardless of the political consequences. The outcome of that debate will likely determine how long rural dwellers will vote against their own self-interest.

Harvard’s Robert Putnam Delves into the Lives of Public Schools

By Paul Theobald

I closely follow the work of Harvard political scientist, Robert Putnam.  From time to time I have taken issue with his arguments, but generally speaking, I find him to be thorough to a fault and always writing about matters of critical importance to humanity.  He is probably best known for Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of Community in America, published in 2000.  The book is an exhaustive chronicle of the demise of citizen participation in all manner of community clubs and associations across all regions of the country, and across all demographics.  But it was really his prior work, undertaken with a team of researchers in Italy, that set up Bowling Alone for the huge scholarly impact it had.

In Making Democracy Work (1993), Putnam and his team set out to solve a puzzle:  How could two regions of the same country have such starkly different levels of economic vitality?  Why was northern Italy prosperous, while southern Italy languished?  To uncover the answer, no stone was left unturned.  Putnam’s team analyzed everything, from early feudal traditions to the emergence of the mafia.  In the end, however, Putnam argued that northern Italy was able to “make democracy work” because of the high level of citizen participation in local associations.  This conclusion dovetailed with what came to be called “communitarian theory” emerging in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s in the work of such scholars as Michael Sandel, Michael Walzer, Robert Bellah, Alisdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, and others.

Making Democracy Work helped to make the communitarian case that there is a pivotal link between community and democracy, that you can’t have one without the other.  Charles Taylor famously entitled a 2003 journal-length essay, “No community, no democracy.”  Bowling Alone, charting the collapse of community in America, helped to explain America’s continuing retreat from democracy and the appearance of organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a consortium of large corporations dedicated to propagating corporate-friendly legislation, including voter suppression laws.

But Robert Putnam is not one to merely identify a problem, he also suggests solutions.  Following Bowling Alone, he offered a much less popular book (co-authored with Lewis Feldman) Better Together: Restoring the American Community (2003).  The book provides example after example of emerging associations and clubs, people trying to reverse the trends identified in Bowling Alone.  But the George W. Bush years were hardly good for anyone trying to promote a revival of community in America.  The book had little impact.

In the years following Better Together, Putnam tackled the question of increasing diversity and its impact on community, or perhaps said more accurately, its impact on the strength of communal bonds.  What he found was that increasing levels of diversity had a negative impact on the existence of trust within communities.  Putnam reported these findings in his 2006 John Skytte Price Lecture entitled “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the 21st Century” adding that he believes the decline in communal bonds accompanying the increase in diversity is a short-term dynamic, and that over the long-haul, those communal bonds will be strengthened by diversity.  Conservative pundits, as one might expect, jumped all over this conjecture and he found himself ridiculed on talk radio and in other venues.

Putnam next turned to religion in America, publishing American Grace: How Religion Unites and Divides Us in 2010.  The book won the Woodrow Wilson Award of the American Political Science Association.  Like all Putnam’s work, the research undergirding American Grace is exhaustive.  It points to an interesting fact: the increasing secularization of American citizens has left the religious scene extremely polarized.  Putnam argues, essentially, that religious moderates are no longer around; they simply abandoned religion, leaving a large gulf between secular liberals and conservative fundamentalists.  Needless to say, this gulf inhibits the effective functioning of democracy.

And now Putnam has turned to the world of America’s public schools: Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (2015).  Some minor quibbles notwithstanding, I think this is very good work and I think it is on par, in terms of potential impact, with the contribution he made through Bowling Alone.  Putnam demonstrates that there was more opportunity for American youth to achieve the “American Dream” in 1959, when he graduated from high school, then there is today.  Why?  Because America has become increasingly divided along class lines, with a huge and ever-growing inequality gap.  Put simply, Putnam argues that the children of the poor experience the world in markedly different ways from children of the affluent.  These differences negatively and powerfully affect the odds for social mobility among the poor.  Putnam doesn’t mince words—inequality is condemning millions of American youth to a bleak future; a circumstance, he argues, that renders America’s future as a democracy tenuous.

True to form, Putnam tries to present some potential solutions and, thankfully, he doesn’t drag out the tired and obviously self-serving cant about school choice and charters.  He argues that earned income tax credits could put more money into the hands of poor families—a circumstance that demonstrably (and undeniably) improves student achievement.  He proposes parental readiness and coaching (some of which, if not handled appropriately, could be seriously problematic—although his lack of familiarity with professional education issues, I would argue, should qualify him for a pass here).  He recommends better school funding, extending school hours, improving teacher training, and creating a tighter school-community connection through place-based curriculum and instruction (although he doesn’t call it that).

To be sure, there’s nothing path-breaking here.  He identified a problem that a large segment of the professional education community was already painfully aware of, and his suggested solutions, too, are not new.  But Putnam is a world-class scholar with an enormous following.  What this means is that many more Americans will come to understand the dramatically negative impact of ever growing levels of inequality, and the degree to which the lives of children are constrained and limited by our current conditions.  Perhaps that will make a difference.


Community-Based Education and Rural Literature

Community-Based Education and Rural Literature

I’ve been asked many times if I would define “community-based education,” as it’s a phrase heard more and more these days, despite the fact that what it means is hardly self-evident. So I’m going to attempt a little essay/definition that deals with the topic and uses rural literature as an example.

First, I think it’s important to note that there’s a long scholarly tradition related to the intersection of community, education, and, ultimately, democracy. For example, it’s not a coincidence that the world’s first documented experiments with democracy in Greece were simultaneous with the world’s first public schools. Likewise, the fall of democracy coincided with the end of public education and the onset of the “dark ages.” But there’s a missing piece in the democracy = education analysis, and that’s the role of community. Socrates, the famous Greek educator, serves as a good example to demonstrate the significance of the concept of community to the emerging democratic world view. As most will recall, he was found guilty of treason for encouraging critical thinking on the part of his students. What many are not aware of is the fact that he had ample opportunity to leave Athens before being forced to drink the hemlock. He refused. He believed that a life outside of his community would not be worth living.

I don’t want to put too much emphasis on antiquity, but it’s worth recognizing that cultural conceptions about community, democracy, and education are very old—and the fact that they never “disappear” for very long suggests that they are at some level fundamental to the human condition. In fact, they are consistently found in answers to key questions that every society, every group of people, must answer, including:

  1. The economic question: How folks will make a living?
  2. The political question: How will folks govern themselves?
  3. The education question: How and what will youth be taught?

Many philosophers, starting with Plato, have argued that the education question is most important, for what’s done in the educational arena can profoundly affect what’s done in the other two. Clearly, if citizens are not well educated, there will be no democracy, or as Thomas Jefferson put it, educated citizens “are the only sure reliance for the preservation of liberty.”

The community piece of the puzzle was not well articulated in antiquity, nor during the Enlightenment period, when the United States was born. There are reasons for this, most stemming from the fact that the world was profoundly local, and people had no particular basis for anticipating a world that wasn’t adequately defined as a collection of communities. Forces were in motion, however, the old feudal structure was crumbling, and the sort of “mass society” that we know today was becoming increasingly visible.[i] Recognizing this trend, the French philosopher, Montesquieu, wrote of corp intermediare, or “intermediate bodies” in all communities (clubs, associations, church groups, any type of organization that brought community members together) could serve as a catalyst to democracy in the coming mass, urban society. In other words, Montesquieu was the first to clearly articulate that schools were not enough to sustain democracy. Vibrant communities, animated by active citizens participating in local associations of all sorts, were also needed.

During the last thirty years, more and more scholarship (sometimes labeled “communitarian theory”) has illuminated the community piece in the success or failure of democracy.[ii] One journal-length essay by one of the world’s best-known philosophers, Canada’s Charles Taylor, has a particularly descriptive title: “No Community, No Democracy.” By fits and starts, this trend in political philosophy has been buttressed by emerging educational theory—that is to say that, increasingly, educational theorists have argued that strong communities are required for successful educational efforts, and successful educational efforts are needed to produce strong communities. Anyone who has read John Dewey extensively can see him in this emerging educational theory, but much work has gone considerably beyond John Dewey. An internet search of “community and education” will quickly reveal that something is afoot—something is happening in the world of educational theory.

It’s not well organized at this point, and it certainly is not well-defined, which partially explains why the emerging theory has only infrequently been converted to pedagogical practice. But the general idea is this: community-based education is at once about improving student achievement in our schools and improving the communities that support our schools, both of which, in turn, will improve the overall effectiveness of American democracy. Community-based education, therefore, is an idea with far greater substance than the merely preparing kids for their “occupational destiny,” a phrase used by long-time Harvard president Charles Eliot. As long as preparing kids to take up roles in the existing economy is prevailing wisdom, we will see very little rural literature in America’s schools. But if we embrace a more substantive end for education, we may see rural literature re-appear in schools.

If part of the nation’s educational agenda is enculturating students into vibrant community life, and if vibrant community life is recognized as a catalyst to effective democracy, then students will need to understand their community, and the forces that have shaped it for the better or worse, at a deep level. Few things would aid that process more than high-quality rural literature written by authors from the community, or from a community very much like it.

Community-based education is very often project-based, although the project is not arbitrary or strictly “academic,” but connected to some aspect of community life or community improvement. Another similar, and growing, curricular trend goes by the name of “place-based” education and it is essentially the same idea—the community in a particular place becomes a curricular lens for learning traditional school subjects. Community elders are often utilized as instructional resources. It should be noted that entire school districts have embraced project-based or place-based pedagogy and they have not found the regulatory demands for meeting standards to be a significant impediment in terms of what they want to achieve, although the number that have done so is quite small. But the failure of the “standards and testing” school reform is becoming increasingly evident. Perhaps community-based education will grow in its wake. If it does, there may yet be another life for forgotten rural authors.


[i] In 1770 Oliver Goldsmith published what many believe to be one of the most haunting, poignant poems in the English language, “The Deserted Village.” It spoke of the decline of communities in the face of new economic arrangements and a new social order that was increasingly urban. With the specter of community erosion coming into view, the community element to the democracy = education intersection also began to appear.

[ii] I can provide more information on this to anyone who is interested, but the list of contributors includes Robert Bellah, Michael Sandel, Michael Walzer, Robert Putnam, Charles Taylor, and many others.

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.