There’s been an ongoing, race-to-the-bottom-like debate about what actually constitutes the “last acceptable prejudice” in mainstream culture. Among a list of contenders, I want to focus on one that has been suggested elsewhere—a bias toward rural America and rural Americans. I highlight this bias, not because I have particular empirical support for it, although much has been written about the role of the rural-urban divide in politics. I bring it up because, like many of my colleagues in higher education, I’m personally invested in rural America.
The institution where I teach—founded by an oil baron who tapped into western Pennsylvania’s vast energy resources—now sits in a post-industrial region that is still reeling more than forty years since steel production vacated the region. A block from our picturesque campus lies a sprawling lot filled with abandoned machinery, epitomizing our location in the infamous Rust Belt. But if I am honest, I highlight a bias toward rural America because it’s one I’ve held myself.
Some of my bias is a [over]reaction to my own history, growing up on a sixth-generation corn and soybean farm in northwest Illinois. In that strange way that we often have to move far—literally and emotionally—from a difficult context in order to understand and reengage with it, I distanced from the rural place of my youth. Memories of a place are intermingled with its people, of course, and the Spirit has brought deep healing to both difficult relationships and their original context over time. Indeed, that healing has been tested in the past year as my siblings and I have had to liquidate most of our family farm to pay down the hefty debts of our deceased parents.
But my own circuitous journey with rural life has also led to an appreciation for its gifts. Perspective and healing have allowed me to more clearly identify rural values such as attachment to land, the importance of family, the guiding roles of churches and schools, rich informal helping networks, a sense of community closeness and pride, self-reliance, and a strong work ethic, all good gifts. Lest it sound utopian, let me quickly add that the gifts of rural life can be easily spoiled as, for example, community closeness breeds gossip, stigma, and enmeshment and self-reliance creates stubborn pride.
Engaging with and loving the places to which we are called extends to us as individuals but also, of course, to our institutions. A town and gown relationship that is solely economic forgoes so many other rich opportunities. College president, Marion Terenzio, calls for institutions of higher education in rural areas to become stewards of place, writing:
Being a steward of place requires an institution to absorb the essence and distinct characteristics of its surrounding communities—both to enrich those communities and to become enriched by them. The influence must be bi-directional and needs to create capital that eclipses strictly economic prosperity, extending into quality of life.
In recent years, I’ve seen a shift toward more stewardship of place at my own institution. We are engaging more opportunities for service learning in our community. We are partnering with non-profit organizations to learn from them and to serve them with our resources, especially our human capital. Our school was fortunate to receive funds to develop a formal and longer-term initiative to learn with and from rural pastors across our region. Through this project, we have heard jaw-dropping stories about the impact of rural pastors serving as first responders to families facing the most entrenched of social problems.
There’s much more to stewarding our places well than this brief list of ideas, but one thing is clear. Condescension toward rural places and people, a common and perhaps even acceptable bias within broader culture, thwarts any sense of meaningful engagement or reciprocal interaction. Rural communities, like any stigmatized population, can sniff condescension a mile away.
Personally, I have stopped apologizing for our college’s rural location when I meet with prospective students and their parents. Some will be turned off by schools in rural locations, drawn to sexier urban options, but thankfully, some will join us in a rich stewardship journey.
For more in CSR about reflections upon rural life see https://christianscholars.com/peasant-poets-blogging-shepherds-and-hillbilly-memoirists/