A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

And There Shall Be No More Curse: Reclaiming the Rural, Reclaiming the Future

Review of Reclaiming the Rural: Essays on Literacy, Rhetoric, and Pedagogy Edited by Kim Donehower, Charlotte Hogg, and Eileen E. Schell 2012; Southern Illinois University Press Guy Lancaster, Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture

Enculturation : http://enculturation.net/reclaiming-the-rural (Published: September 16, 2014)

While traveling out of London with Dr. Watson in “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches,” Sherlock Holmes looks at the scenery of rural England and remarks that, contrary to his companion’s love of seeing so many lonely farmsteads, “the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which crime may be committed there…. It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” Why this attitude? Holmes explains that, in the city, “the scream of a tortured child, or the thud of a drunkard’s blow” is sure to attract attention given the proximity of neighbors, whereas in the country, those lonely houses they can spy from their train window are “filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser.”

Figure 1

The attitude expressed by Holmes is not a new one. After all, the word urbane is distinctly related to urban, originally meaning simply “of or relating to cities or towns” but with the added connotation of refinement being attested by the 1620s. Likewise are the English words civil and civilization direct descendents of civitas, the Latin word for “city,” thus preserving for the present day an ancient Roman bias against the rural sphere. Even the Bible, perhaps known more widely for its occasional condemnation of such population centers as Babylon, begins with the claim that agriculture resulted from a curse placed by God upon mankind and ends with the descent of New Jerusalem, the “holy city,” coming down from heaven to mark the termination of this curse. Early Christians, themselves predominately urban, equated the countryside with backwardness in using the term pagan—from the Latin paganus, meaning “rural” or “rustic”—to denote those who continued to follow older religious traditions.

Even long before urban population centers dominated the landscape like they do today, the stereotype of the rural dweller as ignorant or limited was already well formed. From the locus of devilish idolatry in the early Christian imagination, to the site of uncountable evils in Sherlock Holmes’s assessment, rural citizens of most every empire or nation have struggled against the chauvinism of a metropole which views non-urban areas as sites of mere resource exploitation rather than genuine cultural development. In fact, as the editors of Reclaiming the Rural note in their introduction, “The very demographic methods used to identify the rural have defined it as monolithically not-us—when ‘us’ defaults to urban” (9).The contributors to Reclaiming the Rural work to go beyond this us-them, rural-urban dualism, beyond a view of rural communities as embodying the past, a past that must either be destroyed to help those unfortunate citizens or might be preserved as an exercise in nostalgia. Instead, these various educators aim to uncover already complex literacy practices in rural sphere while providing strategies for these communities to empower and sustain themselves, especially in the face of destructive neoliberal policies.

Opening the book, Marcia Kmetz takes us to the Wind River Reservation of Wyoming, where she examines the rhetoric white farmers have employed in water disputes with local native tribes; she concludes that “Babel has fallen in the American west, precipitated in part by neoliberal practices emphasizing the individual” rather than the common good (30). Moreover, at the national level, farmers have not been able to overcome a discourse which labels agricultural areas as “defeated,” a particularly threatening label since “a defeated place no longer needs civic rhetoric, no longer needs discussion and debate to chart the most effective course for its residents (ibid). Cori Brewster compares early and current agricultural literacy efforts in the United States and finds that, today, small farmers are being recast as “managers” or “entrepreneurs” rather than as “producers,” a rhetorical shift in which “small farmers’ successes can be used to celebrate free enterprise while their failures can be blamed on poor individual choices—not on oligopoly, corporate greed, or national and international farm, tax, and trade policies” (39). In a similar vein does Cynthia Ryan compare the perspectives of a multi-generational group of farmers with the editorial position of the long-running Progressive Farmer magazine, revealing contradictions inherent in the attempt to pair community wisdom and decision-making with the aggressive individualism motivated by profit and often promoted in industry publications: “A yield deemed successful from a marketing standpoint looks quite different from within the community, a tenet that explicitly critiques the limitations of a neoliberal paradigm” (62).

The second section of the book takes us from present economies to histories that offer guidance for creating new worlds. Damián Baca takes the reader to the American Southwest, which saw the rise of the Indohispana/o educational think tank La Academia de la Nueva Raza in the 1970s. This community promoted a dialectical pathway to knowledge dubbed resolana, which offered “an opening for another way of looking at education coming from the community, humanizing knowledge rather than creating yet another ideology such as Marxism, Postmodernism, or Western feminism” (88). Jane Greer offers a moving analysis of her grandmother’s typed autobiography in order to examine the complex ways in which rural farm women have represented their work, moving beyond the caricatures of farm labor as ultimately deadening to mental faculties, while Carolyn Ostrander looks at how the Grange, an agrarian fraternal organization founded in 1867, not only admitted women to full membership but provided a training ground for many rural women to acquire the skills that proved useful in later forms of activism and civic engagement. (Though the author does not say so directly, this chapter on the Grange rather contradicts the widely held notion that progressive advances, such as the realization of equal rights for women, come exclusively from the city and have to be imposed upon the rural world.) I. Moriah McCracken compares the record books of 4-H participants decades apart, concluding that the literacy regime imposed by those record books emphasizes the head and hands portion of the 4-H pledge over heart and health. Wrapping up the section is a chapter by Susan V. Meyers on the survival of religious rhetoric in the rural Mexican education system, rhetoric still based upon themes of sacrifice and redemption that mask “the larger agendas at work in and around Mexican public education—national cohesion and capitalist development,” while also functioning “as an empty promise for local communities,” which often do not have jobs for their educated citizens, thus leading those citizens to migrate away from their homes (155).

The final section of the book offers varied examples of pedagogical alternatives to the current regime. Robert Brooke passionately argues for a place-based education that “is ‘hands on’ and ‘real-world’ because the learners’ actual homes and communities are integrated into the learning” (164), while a group of five educators and students from the University of Arkansas present their own experiences with an oral history project in the poverty-stricken Arkansas Delta in part to counter “the strong public discourse that maintains rural schools suffer an impoverished intellectual climate that can only be countered by subjecting students to standardized tests that tacitly promote a suburban or urban lifestyle” (178). The last three contributors often testimonies from current or previous experience in rural education: Valerie Mulholland discusses the challenges of incorporating First Nations literature in her secondary English education classes at a university in Saskatchewan, Canada; Sara Webb-Sunderhus presents the results of an ethnographic case study of students at an Appalachian state university and the contradictions they encounter in the rhetoric of literacy; and, lastly, Thomas Butler and Jacqueline Edmondson recall the challenges of attempting to change how children in a rural Pennsylvania community were being taught to read in the classroom, while also advancing the suggestion that “teacher education directed toward the sustainability of rural communities involves explicit work understanding the interdependence of rural life, the connections to land and people that are valued in rural communities, the relationship between rural communities and the federal government and other outside entities, and advocacy work on behalf of rural schools and communities” (234).

In his afterword, Paul Theobald recalls that the rural sphere has not always been so viewed as powerless and benighted, that, during the Middle Ages in Europe, rural landholdings were the sources of power, that kings themselves could be described as rural aristocrats. Obviously, nobody is suggesting the return of the feudal system, but there is an inherent power in the rural landscape; or, as the popular saying puts it, “Once in your life you need a doctor, a lawyer, a policeman, and a preacher, but every day, three times a day, you need a farmer.” One might think that their devotion to the production of the means of living might accord rural populations some respect, but capitalism has trained us to regard food as just another commodity, has stripped agriculture of its story and farming of its dignity, so that now we eat without a thought as to that network of dependence embodied in the meal before us.

Our educational system makes itself a slave to the dominant ideologies, the “ruling ideas,” when it renders the rural experience invisible. Robert Brooke observes in this volume that, as it is predominately practiced, “education points elsewhere: to history happening in other parts of the world, to migration as the means of personal advancement in the corporate industrial complex, to an ineffective form of citizenship” (163). Indeed, politicians and educators often work hard to erase from our educational materials or mandates any mention of those very areas which they represent. For example, on March 3, 2011, a bill that would have increased the amount of state history instruction for students and required seniors to pass an Arkansas history competency examination before graduation failed to clear a state Senate committee in the Arkansas General Assembly. Ron Harder of the Arkansas School Boards Association seemed to embody the “voice of reason” when he said that fostering pride in the state should be less a matter of teaching state history and instead should be “derived by job opportunities and economic opportunities,” especially through more focused instruction on the math and science skills that will ostensibly make Arkansas competitive in the global marketplace.

But what is this global marketplace for which we are preparing our children? Because “globalization” has faces both ancient and new, we are likely to conflate its varied manifestations and wrongly take it, as a whole, as a permanent fixture in our collective lives. True, technology and ideas successfully spanned the globe even before Columbus sailed the ocean blue, from the Silk Road in Asia to the trade routes that cut across North America in the Mississippian Period. However, the most modern manifestation of globalization is directly underpinned by the discovery and employment of cheap forms of energy—coal and oil, especially. These forms of energy, applied to forms of transportation, brought the whole globe to the local marketplace in a way unprecedented, at the same time facilitating the rise of the modern metropolis. Perhaps one of the best examples is the development of the refrigerated rail car in the late nineteenth century, which allowed processed meat in Chicago, Illinois, to be shipped across the U.S. with little spoilage and in such a volume that the Chicago processors were able to undercut local butchers and meat markets across the country. As local markets withered, people throughout the nation were increasingly dependent upon companies thousands of miles away for their daily bread and meat. As local communities withered, people sought refuge and work in the nation’s cities, leaving the countryside in the hands of absentee landlords whose hired hands plowed and planted to feed the ever-growing urban population.

Can we not imagine a better way of organizing our society? Might not a better alternative be to reinvest in our local communities—especially rural communities—and reestablish regional, sustainable networks of production, trade, and culture? More than simply an exercise in revitalizing local economies, such a move could actually help to preserve our collective human rights. Indeed, philosopher and lawyer Laura Westra, in calling for a new regime of human rights—one which emphasizes basic rights as being in support of human biological integrity and minimally dependent upon the environment—concludes, “It is only in relation to indigenous communities that individual human rights and community rights are joined with the right to a specific territory, and the conditions of the territory are an integral part of those rights.” According to Westra, only human communities that put at the center of their culture the local landscape that sustains them can guarantee the common good.

Contrary to the long-standing and popular prejudice against non-city-dwelling folk, rural life can be fantastically cosmopolitan. In Arkansas, there existed opera houses even in such now-fading towns as Cotton Plant and Arkansas City; small colleges and academies emerged in the unlikely locales of Quitman, Judsonia, Witcherville, and Wilmar; and the state’s first literary magazine was published in the town of Tulip—all of this giving lie to the belief that a life lived locally must, by its very nature, be intellectually stunted. Neither should such a life be regressive and conservative, for the Agricultural Wheel, a farmers’ union that helped to launch third-party populism in the late nineteenth century, was founded in a log schoolhouse eight miles southwest of the Arkansas community of Des Arc.

Of course, part of the challenge of creating a rural cosmopolitanism is pedagogical, depending upon learning the stories of a place. Stories are important. According to Peter J. Rabinowitz, we occupy two different spheres when we read or experience a work of fiction: as authorial audience, in which we acknowledge (along with the author) that this is a work of fiction, and narrative audience, in which we allow ourselves to experience the story as if it were true. As he says, “We are hardly responding adequately to Romeo and Juliet if we leap on stage to warn Romeo that his beloved is not really dead. Neither, however, should we refuse to mourn Juliet because we know that once the curtain falls she will be up and partying with the rest of the cast.” Gillian R. Overing and Marijane Osborn, in Landscape of Desire: Partial Stories of the Medieval Scandinavian World, suggest that this is why we respond poorly to those stories that pull the “it was all a dream” trick at the end—after all, we’ve already know that it’s not real, so it does not suit the author to remind us of that.” On the other hand, there are those stories in which the dreams turn out to be real, in which, for example, a young maiden is given a ring by a man in her dream, a man who promises to come and protect her whenever she turns the ring on her finger, and then she wakes up actually wearing the ring. Those stories tend to resonate with us because they open up the possibility that the stories to which we listen might actually end up being true.

Overing and Osborn suggest that visiting a place that is the site of a well-known story has the same effect. After all, why do people seek out 221B Baker Street (Sherlock Holmes’s abode) or Platform 9 3/4 at King's Cross Station (jumping-off point for Harry Potter's adventures) in London? Because visiting those places makes those stories come to life. As Overing and Osborn write, “It seems as though the nature of the story does not matter so much as the fact that a place has a story. A place with a story is special, for those who live there and those who wander there alike.”

Contrary to a cultural bias that ranks cities as most embodying narrative potential, rural communities have their own stories, and, following the models provided in Reclaiming the Rural, we can use those stories for more than simply giving a sense of pride to non-urban citizens. Black novelist Richard Wright argued that “if the Negro solved his problem, he would be solving infinitely more than his problem alone,” and in much the same way might we say that if rural communities solved their problems, if they were able successfully to counter their exploitation by a metropole that would deny them their full humanity and citizenship, then such communities might solve more than their problems alone, for so many of the issues facing global society today—economic collapse, climate change, resource wars—are fueled in part by a false rural-urban, past-future dualism which sees development and progress as having a set end rather than embodying fantastic possibilities and variations. Or, to quote the artist Mark Rothko, “Certain people always say we should go back to nature. I notice they never say we should go forward to nature.”

Reclaiming the Rural is part of our roadmap for moving forward. This volume combines a survey of the economic realities of agricultural economies, a broad historical context which includes many precedents for rural-centered activism and education, and a number of pedagogical case studies illustrating strategies that can be adapted for rural classrooms across the nation or globe. More than this, though, Reclaiming the Rural makes the center of its analysis the rhetoric which underpins exchanges with the wider world, such as the rhetoric of decline so often internalized by non-urban populations as much as it is by the urban, so much so that the options for going forward become limited to those offered by the current neoliberal regime—grow or die. With the tools provided by this volume, educators can begin to undo that primordial curse and empower rural communities to lay claim to their humanity in full.

Works Cited and Consulted

Cronon, William. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: W. W. Norton Company, 1991. Print

Donehower, Kim, Charlotte Hogg, and Eileen E. Schell, eds. Reclaiming the Rural: Essays on Literacy, Rhetoric, and Pedagogy. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2012. Print

Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. London: George Newnes Ltd., 1892. Print. Online at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1661

Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. http://www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net/

Online Etymological Dictionary. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php

Overing, Gillian R., and Marijane Osborn. Landscape of Desire: Partial Stories of the Medieval Scandinavian World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994. Print

Rabinowitz, Peter J. “Assertion and Assumption: Fictional Patterns and the External World.” Publications of the Modern Language Association 96 (1981): 408–419. Print

Westra, Laura. Human Rights: The Commons and the Collective. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 2011. Print

Wright, Richard. Black Boy (a.k.a. American Hunger). New York: HarperCollins, 1993. Print