Back to the Future

Posted on February 12, 2011. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns |

Sometimes it takes a blast from the past to shake up our sensibilities.

This week marks the completely unheralded 102nd anniversary of the release of the Report of the President’s Commission on Country Life.

The president referenced was Theodore Roosevelt, and at the time of the report’s release on Feb. 9, 1909, rural Americans still outnumbered their urban counterparts.

The 1910 census would be the last national enumeration for which that was the case, however. By 1920, urban inhabitants had crested the 50 percent mark.

For many states, country life remained the predominant style for several decades more. In Arkansas in 1910, 87 percent of the population was rural. The urban population here didn’t achieve majority status until the 2000 census.

Although cities were growing at a rate three times that of rural areas in terms of population, in 1909 there were still 50 million rural American residents. Roosevelt’s commission sought to study and understand their living conditions, which obviously differed dramatically from those in the cities.

Even a century ago, one of the main topics of discussion of rural life was rural education.

“The subject of paramount importance in our correspondence and in the hearings is education,” the report said. “In every part of the United States there seems to be one mind . . . on the necessity of redirecting the rural schools. There is no such unanimity on any other subject.”

Just as clearly as the need for an improved rural education system was universally acknowledged—in “remarkable” similarity of phrase across the country, the commission noted—so, too, was the imperative that it not be modeled after urban schools.

“Everywhere there is a demand that education have relation to living, that the schools should express the daily life, and that in the rural districts they should educate by means of agriculture and country-life subjects,” the report said.

As early as 1909, the commission recognized and addressed a disturbing trend. While finding that rural schools bore responsibility for ineffective farming, lack of ideals and a drift to town by rural residents, the commission didn’t blame the schools themselves.

“This is not because the rural schools, as a whole, are declining but because they are in a state of arrested development,” the report said. “The very forces that have built up the city and town school have caused the neglect of the country school.”

That last sentence remains a central problem for rural education today. The only difference in then and now is that the urban population is in the majority, which affords it the political might to make right-even when it’s wrong.

The primary wrong in the realm of rural education was warned against a century ago. In rural areas, “the schools must represent and express the community in which they stand,” the report said.

“They should teach health and sanitation. . . . The teaching should be visual, direct, and applicable.”

Rural schools then and now have an ethical obligation to “teach the vital subjects truthfully,” as the report recommended, with the caveat that “particular care should be taken that they stand for the morals of the pupils and of the communities.”

It’s safe to say that, in the 102 years since this report was delivered to the U.S. Senate, and in the more than 50 Arkansas legislative sessions since then, our state gets a failing grade in implementing the commission’s findings.

Common sense wasn’t so out of vogue in 1909. The commission waved aside arguments that rural areas didn’t support education reform. It believed that the farming communities would willingly support better schools-“as soon as it becomes convinced that the schools will really be changed in such a way as to teach persons how to live. . . .”

Not how to live someplace else, but right there in their own local community. The overriding theme of the report was that rural schools needed to reflect rural lifestyles and rural values.

That essential truth hasn’t changed. And guess what? There are STILL more than 50 million rural residents in the U.S., which means that the first step in revitalizing a rural education program would be dusting off the Roosevelt commission report.

In some ways, the time couldn’t be better to breathe new life into the old document. Isolation was a huge problem for rural areas in 1909. It was one of the biggest complaints from rural families at the time.

But better roads and automobiles, broadband Internet penetration and the proliferation of cell phones/smart phones have changed all that. Rural communities, families and children are better positioned than ever to thrive, but not unless we abandon our destructive consolidation tunnel vision.

Looking back, maybe it’s little wonder that Arkansas has languished near last in state education rankings. We had a rural majority population for 90 years following the commission’s report, but state policymakers continuously ignored its recommendations for rural schools. In a lot of states, that would be seen as two and two making four.

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