(Source: Alamy 2A7DEC8)

Part two of a series

Using the experience of one person to make assumptions about a group of people or an institution can promote misconceptions, intolerance, cynicism, and despair. Unfortunately, that’s what happened with a New York Times article about a student in a struggling rural school district in Mississippi. While powerful and poignant, the article evoked (or provoked) a narrative of despair. 

The graphic below characterizes four basic elements of this narrative. 

  • First, people living in rural places are left behind due to social, economic, or political changes. 
  • Second, this increases their chances to be poor, isolated, uneducated, and disconnected. 
  • Third, toxic and divisive politics emerge around perceived differences in rural and urban values and interests. 
  • Fourth, low-quality rural schools are blamed for producing poorly educated people who have lower rates of attending and completing college compared to urban and suburban counterparts.

This narrative advances a mindset that people who live in rural places deserve what they get or that there is little hope for a better life. This mindset encourages policymakers, advocates, and investors to abandon rural schools and communities. For example, many of the reader comments at the end of the Times article call for “rescuing” the bright, ambitious, and economically challenged student by helping his family relocate to a better school in Mississippi or elsewhere. Federal and state legislators have promoted “leave-rural policies” (e.g., let dying rural towns die, consolidate rural schools, close rural hospitals). Enough is enough. It is critical that we change the dominant rural narrative from despair to desire. It is in the best interest of all of us regardless of where we live.

Jesse Stuart, a rural Kentucky educator who began his teaching career at the age of 17 in 1923, wrote in his autobiography The Thread that Runs So True, that rural students, families, and communities needed to see how a “proper education” was worth its weight in “coal.” This meant shifting the narrative about the purpose, quality, and salience of education in rural communities. He was right. From 1910 through the 1940s rural communities across the country made massive local investments in the expansion of comprehensive high schools. This led to significant results in math and language literacy, educational attainment, and workforce quality. Just 9% of people under 18 had high school diplomas in 1910 but more than 50% did by 1940 (a five-fold increase in human capital in one generation). High school expansion happened most rapidly and broadly in rural, sparsely settled communities – places characterized by a keen desire for a better future. 

While high school expansion had serious social-justice blind spots, it arguably has been the most successful rural education innovation of the last hundred years. Expanding rural high school talent helped America win a world war, dominate the post-war economy, and put a man on the moon. It required a community effort grounded in classic rural values — fairness, ingenuity, resilience, and interdependence.  It is a tale of shared desire, respect, and benefit. 

An iteration of Jesse Stuart’s rural narrative is emerging across rural America today. We are on the cusp of shifting economic and demographic trends involving race, class, ethnicity, gender, employment, wealth creation, and, yes, political persuasion. The graphic below outlines four basic elements of this narrative. 

  • First, a new era of pioneering leadership is emerging involving a diverse array of rural people with a deep desire to revitalize their schools and communities around both old and new values. 
  • Second, respect for place is being rekindled from organic farming to new economies designed around landscape, artistic, and cultural amenities. 
  • Third, new political coalitions and approaches are generating economic, community, and school development in more just, sustainable, practical, and mutually beneficial ways. 
  • Fourth, the decoupling of work and place and the reconnecting of school and community bonds increase opportunities for young people and families to stay or migrate to rural America. 

The stories we tell shape our lives. It is time to live and tell more tales of the rise of rural schools in a highly turbulent post-Covid world.

Brad Mitchell works with rural education and employment cooperatives across the country. He is a former college professor, policy analyst, and community organizer.  

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