Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Value of Community

Survival of Rural America: Small Victories and Bitter Harvests by Richard E. Wood is a fascinating book. Through a series of case studies of rural towns, based mainly in Kansas, Mr. Wood examines the reasons for population loss in rural counties and what strategies are being tested to reverse the losses. We may live in Kansas, but our little town is excluded from his area of study as we are relatively close to a larger city or a university (as we'll always be, as long as Kansas Dad stays in his chosen line of work).

Each case study allows Mr. Wood to show what real communities are doing to save their towns. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, he claims the success of any town depends on the people living there, people willing to devote time, energy, leadership, and money.

Broad public policy and planning initiatives are interesting and, in some cases, necessary, but in the end the success of most communities individually, and of rural America as a whole, will depend more on the actions and commitment of the people who live there.

Politics are not the case (or the solution) to the problem of rural depopulation, but Mr. Wood of course touches on the subject.

I think his [columnist Daniel Henniger] real point is that even in the small towns of Kansas most people are not one-dimensional. Their values and attitudes certainly differ from those of the New York woman [referring to an earlier anecdote], but they have been shaped by the kinds of processes that are no less complex than those by which she developed her beliefs. It is common among liberal pundits to bemoan the fact that almost everyone in red Kansas usually votes for Republicans, yet curiously they seldom pause to question the equally one-sided voting habits of their neighbors in New York City. In their minds, political wisdom, it seems, is a product of blue states as much as grains are a product of red states.

Later:

To understand what is going on in rural America, it is not helpful for people such as Thomas Frank (or William Allen White, for that matter) to find politics to blame for the ills that affect their communities. The causes, as we have seen, are broad, well entrenched, and affecting rural communities throughout the world.

In case you were wondering, Mr. Wood does give a very straightforward reason for the decline of rural communities:

Most of the changes can be attributed to two primary factors: improved transportation and the industrialization of agriculture.

According to Mr. Wood, rural communities almost universally do a tremendous job educating their youth. It is, unfortunately, a contributing factor to their decline as the students graduate and then go to college, many never to return.

There is one area in which Jackson most definitely sees the need for change if rural communities are to regain their vitality: education. Jackson believes universities--perhaps unwittingly--contributed to rural decline and depopulation. "The universities now offer only one series major: upward mobility. Little attention is paid to educating the young to return home and contribute to their communities...We educate kids to take tests," Jackon says, but "teachers don't even know how to talk about community responsibility."

There are, of course, exceptions, some of which he highlights in the book. I know there are also programs in Kansas that, for example, will pay your medical school loans in exchange for serving rural communities.

I don't know all that much about rural communities, besides what I've learned living in them (and most of that time I was too young to pay close enough attention), but Mr. Wood seems to do a thorough job, touching on all the important topics and providing a balanced view of such controversial issues as ethanol production and the Buffalo Commons metaphor. Do not expect a dry dissertation. Mr. Wood's writing is conversational and the case studies are engrossing. I would expect business professionals in particular to find much food for thought. Read it!

Kansas, like rural America itself, is important to us. Thomas Frank's observation that Kansas is "familiar even if you've never been there" is perceptive and means, I think, that such places are part of our national collective consciousness, our "field of dreams," as David Danbom called it. That's why there is concern about what is happening to rural and farming communities--those amber waves of grain--and why stories about their efforts to survive are featured prominently in national publications. We don't want those communities to die, even as we understand that the odds are against them. We care about communities that are trying to keep an important way of life--and our hopes and memories--alive.

I'm struck with a sudden desire to wander the state, buying gas and groceries in every little town along the way.

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