Sending off All Your Good Treasures: Rural Schools, Brain-Drain, and Community Survival in the Wake of Economic Collapse

By Sherman, Jennifer; Sage, Rayna | Journal of Research in Rural Education (Online), June 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Sending off All Your Good Treasures: Rural Schools, Brain-Drain, and Community Survival in the Wake of Economic Collapse


Sherman, Jennifer, Sage, Rayna, Journal of Research in Rural Education (Online)


Based in qualitative interviews and ethnographic research conducted in the remote rural town of "Golden Valley," California, this paper explores the roles of schools and education in structuring rural community life in the wake of economic devastation caused by the timber industry collapse in the region. We look in depth at the ways in which education is either valued or rejected by community residents in their struggles to keep their children nearby and promote a viable future for their community. We critically investigate the ways in which brain drain is perpetuated within the community, and how moral categories constructed around perceptions of a family's moral worth influence the amount of encouragement or support children receive with regard to education and future prospects within or outside of the community. We find that in the new economic landscape, moral and class divisions within the community are magnified and reproduced through the local school system, with results that may consign some young adults to a life outside of the community, and others to chronic economic insecurity.

Golden Valley,1 California, a small, remote community in the northern forested region of the state, was once a bustling logging town with an economy tied heavily to the timber industry. Generations of its men needed little formal education to make a respectable living there, often learning skills from their own fathers as teenagers, and transitioning to full time work in the forest sector rather than finishing high school. Women frequently married young, and tended homesteads and children rather than working for pay, relying on their husbands' incomes to support the families. Things changed permanently in 1990 with the spotted owl ruling,2 which banned timber harvesting in the owl's habitat. The resulting closure of the local forests to logging set off a chain reaction that resulted in the closure of the local sawmills and the loss of jobs in most timber-related sectors of the economy. The last sawmill closed in 1996, taking 150 of the best remaining (men's) jobs with it. By 2003, when this research was conducted, the community was an economic black hole, with the few lingering jobs clustered in local government, the school system, child and elder care, and a small and shrinking service sector. Despite significant outmigration in the late 1990s, the community persisted, with a population tied deeply to the land and community. In the wake of such drastic labor market restructuring, Golden Valley residents struggled to make sense of their new economic and social landscape.

With regard to the community's future, education became a point of much ambivalence for Golden Valley residents, many of whom viewed it as a necessary evil, but their children's best hope for success. For still others, education represented a source of judgment and marginalization. As one of the few remaining social institutions in the diminished community, the public school system took on ever increasing importance. The school district was one of the community's few remaining employers, yet also a barometer of its health and tangible evidence of its decline. Residents looked to its public schools as a source of community cohesion, but also recognized them as the main agents of "brain drain," the phenomenon by which the most talented young individuals are funneled out of rural communities in search of healthier labor markets and greater opportunities elsewhere (Carr & Kefalas, 2009; Gibbs, 2005). How an individual or family conceived of education and its importance was influenced by several factors, including their own levels of education, current employment status, attachment to the place and its people, and moral standing within the community.

For a rural town in troubled times, education and local schools can become battlegrounds upon which the fate of the community rests, ultimately playing crucial roles in the transition to a post-industrial local economy. …

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