For almost 200 years economists, politicians, and philosophers have debated the desirability of industrial development and its effects on society., Because the mission of the U.S. public schools is to socialize children into adult life and because our schools were once under direct community control, the changing nature of our communities in this century has profound implications for educators. This is particularly true for the rural communities and schools of America.
Since the late 1800s industrial development has transformed our cities. Some urban (and later suburban) communities profited greatly from such development; others were not as lucky. Because the plight of many urban schools today has been well-documented in the education literature, we need not dwell on this topic.(2)
It is a more difficult task to find rural communities that have benefited from industrialism to the same extent as some of their urban counterparts. Metropolitan communities in the U.S. draw people and resources from the countryside and have done so for a hundred years. Even today job opportunities continue to decline in most rural communities, which means that many rural students must seek educational degrees consistent with employment in the city.(3) Rural educators thus face the double challenge of generating dollars to operate local schools where property values are low, while at the same time teaching values and skills that are useful primarily in metropolitan America.
The dilemmas that face rural schooling in industrial nations to@ day manifest themselves in classical economics texts, they are visible in films and other portrayals of rural life, and they are audible in the conversations documented in qualitative research about rural education. We explore each of these areas here.
In the classical texts, the economic growth associated with industrial capitalism was often credited with ushering in great leaps forward in social progress. Some authors recognized that industrial development could occur only if rural citizens were coerced or enticed into leaving their homes and seeking work in the city. And this end could best be accomplished through government policies that forced the producers of food to be as efficient as the producers of manufactured goods.(4)
Robert Owen challenged several underlying assumptions held by most advocates of industrialism. He questioned the prevailing view that city life was preferable to life in the countryside, that wage labor could elevate the masses out of poverty, and that consumption was the cornerstone of human happiness. In his view, industrial capitalism created poverty along with wealth and was not an economic panacea. Moreover, poverty was not the only negative impact of industrialism on the human condition, for industrial economic development also assaulted the social fabric of Western culture.
A principle quite unfavorable to individual and general happiness was working havoc with [the individual's] social environment, neighborhood, his standing in the community, his craft; in a word, with those relationships to nature and man in which his economic existence was formerly embedded. The industrial revolution was causing a social dislocation of stupendous proportions, and the problem of poverty was merely the economic aspect of this event.(5)
Debates between economists in the early days of the Industrial Age presaged events to come. The Industrial Revolution in the U.S. was dramatic and comprehensive: our cities grew larger and became metropolitan as industrialization expanded. Many agricultural workers and the rural communities they supported disappeared from the countryside as government policies encouraged agribusiness and subsidized large-scale fishing and timbering industries. Americans of all stripes became "consumers," living within a market economy where careers increasingly replaced craft guilds and subdivisions replaced communities. …