Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Culture, Community, and the Promise of Rural Education

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Culture, Community, and the Promise of Rural Education

Article excerpt

The work of the rural school is no longer to emulate the urban or suburban school, but to attend to its own place, Messrs. Theobald and Nachtigal maintain.

Rural Schools have traditionally been tightly linked to their communities. In earlier years, the process of schooling reflected local values, local mores, local ways of being in the world. It was not unusual as late as the 1940s, for example, for small country schools scattered in various locales across the Midwest to add a month of German school" or "Norwegian school" after the regular school term. In one small North Dakota district, Catholics were dismissed early on Fridays so that the teacher could shift to the Sunday school curriculum.[1] Well into this century, rural places had their own ways.

Perhaps the best documentation of this is Alan Peshkin's insightful study, Growing Up American. Chronicling the search for a new superintendent in a small rural community. Peshkin noted that the successful candidate was chosen because, as one school board member indicated, He's country." In other words, he would fit in. He would provide the kind of educational leadership that was right for the community.'

While pretty much unquestioned during the 19th century, this type of allegiance to local ways came in for heavy criticism during the progressive era. "Don't under-estimate the problem of school reform," wrote Ellwood Cubberley in 1914, "because the rural school is today in a state of arrested development, burdened by education traditions, lacking in effective supervision, controlled largely by rural people, who, too often, do not realize either their own needs or the possibilities of rural education."[3] While he was writing these words, the United States was steadfastly going about the business of building big cities to surround big factories. The logic was obvious: schools should be big as well.

Before the close of the progressive era, consensus was reached concerning the metaphors and mechanisms that would define public schooling in the United States. That is, the "one best system,, was identified and promulgated as the way schools should be.[4] An inherent assumption within the one best system - that bigger is better - proved to be inordinately popular, and it continues to serve as conventional wisdom regarding the proper way to formally educate young people.

But we need to be clear about what is driving this particular brand of conventional wisdom. It can best be identified as a "cultural assumption" - an idea that people agree to agree on. Cultures possess many such shared assumptions. and the interesting thing about this one. for our purposes, is that appearances can solidify cultural assumptions just as easily as an empirical evidential base. if not more so. For instance, if our cities and factories are growing larger. so must our schools, right? It turns out, of course, that there is simply no evidential base to undergird this view. Yet we cling to it as some kind of basic truth.

Perhaps an anecdote will make this point clearer. A front@page story in a large midwestern newspaper told of a little town with a little school that folks were campaigning to save. After reading the article, a few teachers in a nearby district that was much larger expressed their belief that all such small schools should be closed. The irony of this anecdote is that, at that very time, these teachers were working on ways to divide up their school into teams of teachers and students - schools-within-a-school - in an attempt to make themselves small. While they recognized the trend inviting places out of schools, these teachers were nevertheless unable to use this as intellectual leverage to dislodge the shallow assumption that being big means being good. Because such cultural givens are rarely ever analyzed, these teachers were not able to see the contradiction.

What this anecdote demonstrates is that it is important to push the analysis of rural circumstances beyond what one sees on the surface. …

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