English, Department of


Date of this Version



THE ACTIVE LEARNER: A Foxfire Journal for Teachers· AUGUST 1997, pp. 10-13.


Some years ago I was teaching a course called "The Literature of Agriculture," accounts of how farmers and rural people made a living over time. Hesiod, Virgil, Chaucer's rural tales, George Eliot, Great Plains modem farm novels, and Wendell Berry's writings about the unsettling of America were the fare. One of my students remarked in passing, "Don't know if I can read this stuff. I only went to a small high schooL" He knew nothing of the literature about smallness and quality in education and had no pride of community. Later I asked the rural class if they planned to stay in rural America. Most answered, "No! No jobs. Nothing to do." Though they thought rural America the place to grow up, they did not see '80s rural Nebraska as survivable. The class came to me during the height of the farm crisis. Among the students were kids whose fathers or uncles had attempted suicide, people who had lost their farms, or had to sell most of their land to consolidate their assets and survive, kids whose parents had lost small town businesses. I found it hard to talk coherently to them about what one ought to do because I did not know myself. At the same time, I saw rural teachers finding the same attitudes in their high and middle school students.

No surprise then that we lost 30% of our rural people and almost all of our rural youth during the period.

Simultaneously the Center for Rural Affairs in Walthill, Nebraska, a rural advocacy group on whose board I sat, was trying to discover ways to counter the farm crisis. They taught some people the development of small sustainable farms and others the creation of microenterprises to keep their towns alive. They encouraged direct and niche farm marketing and rural energy-saving, developed benevolent land transfer arrangements to get young farmers started, and fostered long-range planning for communities. The Center's teachers, administrators, and school board members knew that what the Center was teaching belonged in the schools, that rural students had to know how to create small businesses, community plans, effective civic discourse, and a sustainable relationship to the environment. Hence they created the School at the Center project, designed both to celebrate and critique rural culture. As the project grew and received Annenberg funding, we moved it from the Center to the University of Nebraska, but that did not change our thrust. Out of the breakage in what Osha Davidson has called the Broken Heartland, our work with rural education was born in the early to middle 1990s. Mending that breakage is still our task.