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.

We would love to hear what you think - please leave a comment!