The Rural Brain Drain

Have you seen and/or experienced  The Rural Brain Drain (Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas, Chronicle of Higher Education, 9/19/2009)?  After a number of suggestions regarding how to address The Rural Brain Drain, Carr and Kefalas conclude:

Ultimately, with a plan and a vision the undoing of Middle America is not preordained. The rural crisis has been ignored for far too long, but, we believe, it isn’t too late to start paying attention. The residents of rural America must embrace the fact that to survive, the world they knew and cherished must change. And, on a national level, rural development must be more closely linked to national economic growth priorities, and policies must be created to help these communities prepare for a future that is already here.

The article is drawn from material in their soon to be published Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America.  As a resident of the rapidly developing (or should I say over-developed) Lancaster County, PA, I intend to place Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America on my to read list and see what insights might be transferrable to my context.

Rural Road in Lancaster County, PA

Rural Road in Lancaster County, PA

Below are a few brief thoughts which I would be interested in discussing further.  Any takers?

  1. Although rural and small town America overlap, they are not the same.
  2. Pennsylvania, in contrast to some large stretches of Middle America, has a high number of regional state universities and liberal arts colleges which bring the educated back into small towns.  Pennsylvania even boasts a large state university intentionally built in a rural location several hours away from the distractions of urban life, i.e., Penn State University.  Note:  Some faculty on small town campuses commute from metro-areas, so that their families can take advantage of more opportunities.  In addition, many campuses find it difficult to serve/partner with their local communities even though quite a few started with that intention.
  3. I wonder how much the larger brain drain is a societal lack of interest in the value of education itself. I find the idealized desire for learning in films such as Music Man, referenced by the article, a rare commodity.  That’s why inspirational producations such as Music Man return year after year in small town/rural communities, but seldom become part of the lived fabric of the community.
  4. Simplicity.  Any interest in returning to living off the land as part of extended families or tightknit communities?  I hear and read about this as an ideal desired by many, but are the authors saying this is impossible?  Note:  Our family continues to seek to move more and more in this direction.
  5. Local congregations have much to contribute in the discernment of vocation/calling, intentional commitment to one’s community, and the life of the mind.  Do you have positive illustrations and/or visions of possibilities to be offered in rural/small town settings?
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Tom Grosh IV

Tom enjoys daily conversations regarding living out the Biblical Story with his wife Theresa and their four girls, around the block, at Elizabethtown Brethren in Christ Church (where he teaches adult electives and co-leads a small group), among healthcare professionals as the South Central PA Area Director for the Christian Medical & Dental Associations (CMDA), and in higher ed as a volunteer with the Emerging Scholars Network (ESN). The Christian Medical Society / CMDA at Penn State College of Medicine is the hub of his ministry with CMDA. Note: Tom served with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship / USA for 20+ years, including 6+ years as the Associate Director of ESN. He has written for the ESN blog from its launch in August 2008. He has studied Biology (B.S.), Higher Education (M.A.), Spiritual Direction (Certificate), Spiritual Formation (M.A.R.), Ministry to Emerging Generations (D.Min.). To God be the glory!

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    Hannah commented on September 23, 2009 Reply

    One of the things Wendell Berry points out about being committed to a rural or small-town setting is that it helps us to acknowledge our limitations and see what is good about those limitations. I’ve found a parallel realization very helpful in my academic work: usually understanding one small thing well and then building from there helps me more than trying to cover too much in one gulp.

    I also wonder if one good thing schools and academics in a rural or small-town setting could do is to think of ways to weave thinking about academic and everyday lives together. For instance, my own fascination with the Odyssey comes partly from having a longstanding commitment to a place. The way in which Odysseus interacts with Ithaka has taught me a lot about caring for and belonging to the place in which I live. On the other side, I doubt that I would be so fascinated by the Odyssey and so interested in understanding it better if I didn’t know what it is like to live for years in the same place, and to try to navigate the tension of wanting knowledge and adventure and wanting at the same time to be committed to a locality.

    So I guess that I think learning to know a place and learning to know a subject have many overlaps, and that much fruitful thought could come from identifying some of them.

    On the question of local congregations, one of the reasons I’ve gravitated back to the place I grew up is that I found a congregation which really valued the the thoughtful pursuit of God through the intellect. At the same time, my church is good at situating intellectual endeavor in the context of lives which involve all sorts of other good vocations: work with one’s hands, thinking about how to serve the poor, considering a commitment to a place, etc.

    Micheal Hickerson commented on September 24, 2009 Reply

    Tom, excellent point about the differences between rural America and small town America. Having grown up in a rural area, I look forward to the authors’ book. However, I fear that both they and the CHE commenters are making a classic “Coastal America” mistake by talking about a generalized “Middle America.” Their article mentions Iowa, Texas, Indiana, Minnesota, West Virginia, Maine – these are unique places with their own unique histories and problems. Bully for Carr and Kefalas for moving to Ellis, IA, to conduct their study, but I hope they don’t take the approach that “if you’ve seen one small town you’ve seen them all.”

  • Thomas B. Grosh IV commented on October 1, 2009 Reply

    David Evans (vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty at Buena Vista University, in Iowa) in “The ‘Rural Brain Drain’ and the Academic Job Search,” (9/30/2009), has a strong critique of what he terms “the closed-minded bigotry” and “provincialism” of the sophisticated from New York City. Any comments/responses?

    “There is a tremendous amount of anti-rural prejudice in the academy, part of it wholly merited by certain negative aspects of rural life, and part of it more of a reflexive response that dismisses anything aside from culturally sophisticated places like New York City as simply beyond the pale, personally and professionally.

    Contrary to those negative sentiments, I actually chose to come back to rural Iowa. Here’s why. First, I believe strongly that my institution offers wonderful opportunities to students from small towns in the area to develop a broader view of the world then they may have had a chance to discover as they grew up. By partnering with community colleges around the state, we are also offering returning students an opportunity to retool, to complete their degrees, and to enrich themselves intellectually and improve themselves economically. We provide a tremendous amount of economic activity in the region, and support the local culture through programming, on-campus events, and other activities. …

    There is surely closed-minded bigotry here. But the worst bigotry I have encountered, by a very considerable margin, was in the largest and most diverse city I’ve lived in since becoming a professor. Some of the most provincial people I have ever met are from New York City—they simply cannot imagine that life is worth living anywhere off of Manhattan Island.”

    Ian commented on June 11, 2013 Reply

    Even so, being bigoted does not justify more bigotry. Just because some rural people are bigoted, that doesn’t make their hardships deserved, rather, hardships like that often lead those people to their prejudice.

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