Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Rural Brain Drain

I’ve often struggled with my rural hometown roots, although I’ve developed a certain affection for these roots as I’ve grown older.  In fact, all through high school I anticipated the freedom and anonymity that awaited me in college—the time when I could finally move away and leave behind the reputation and socialize d history I had cultivated from first grade through graduation.  Many of my friends shared this mindset, and today—like me—they are scattered across the country, mostly in urban areas either for work or education purposes.  I do have a few friends who still live in my hometown: some who never went to college, some who went to a local college, and some who went away for school and have since returned.  Of my friends and the rest of my graduating class still in the area (the majority of my class), most fall within the first two categories. 

Since I’ve left, I’ve often pondered why it is that the majority of my friends, my two siblings, and I have all decided to abandon our hometown in favor of living elsewhere.  We were arguably the “top of the class”—repeatedly recognized in the classroom, in the arts, in sports, in civic engagement, etc.—and our success largely depended on the strength of our school district’s teachers, despite the fact that the district lacked the financial resources of suburban schools within the county.  While I may have been impatient to leave, to this day I wrestle with an enormous sense of guilt in my snubbing of the very community that made it possible to leave.

Upon reading Sonya Salamon’s “Newcomers to Old Towns,” I was struck by her assessment of this “rural brain drain” as based on others’ research:

Recently we have begun to understand that the social resources available in agrarian communities make them exceptional incubators for youth development…The accepted wisdom is, of course, that the best and the brightest always leave the agrarian towns, taking with them the valuable resources of the community investment in them and their energy and talent, which are of potential benefit to the community….When an agrarian-community identity connects a population, and rich social resources are present, a positive community effect is visible in the development of children, who benefit from this strong, caring social environment.  Despite a continuing exodus of the best and brightest, those (bullheads and suckers) who remain annually produce a crop of bright youth, whom they bemoan losing.     

This assessment clearly contradicts itself—if it is indeed “bullheads and suckers” who remain then how are they capable of consistently raising the “best and brightest?”  This quick analysis attaches a certain demeaning lack of intelligence to those who remain within the community—a charge that surely cannot be accurate if the community can then reproduce another “best and brightest” generation with each passing year. 

My biggest problem with this assessment, however, is with Salamon’s further application of it.  If these “best and brightest” are deemed as such due to their strong sense of community and social network, how do they subsequently apply these cultural values after having left the rural communities for what we may presume to be urban ones?  Salamon consistently pits agrarian life against the urban, lamenting with the agrarian old timers (those who have stayed behind as insiders) when “newcomers” (outsiders) arrive and begin applying urban constructs to rural spaces.  She argues that “newcomers” lack the community culture of the old timers…but it must surely be the case that a portion, if not most, of these “newcomers” are in fact the “best and brightest” who left years before and are now seeking to return to their roots.  In my experience, there are many people who begin their lives in rural places, move away during their youthful adult years, and then return later to raise families of their own, seeking the sense of community and romanticized idyll of the rural experience.  So how do we compromise the assertion that these “best and brightest” who benefited from and understand the importance of community effect have now become “newcomers” who are otherwise ill-equipped to integrate and embrace this very same community effect?

We could suggest that perhaps the romanticizing of their youths and the shock of discovering a community that has changed (as all communities inevitably do over the years) in their absence perpetuates the “newcomer” mentality and alienation from the old timer’s community culture.  We could even suggest that somewhere during their years in urban places, these “best and brightest” lose that sense of community that fostered them so favorably during their childhoods.  If we look at it this way, it would appear that the “best and brightest” redesign their cultural tool kits while engaged in their urban lifestyles.  This could be—to argue otherwise would be to challenge the power of space and place in defining culture—but I find it hard to believe that those “newcomers” who began as the “best and brightest” completely rewrite their tool kits.  Perhaps the problem is not so much that the “newcomer” disapproves of the old timer’s lifestyle, as Salamon would have us believe—that “newcomers” tend to segregate themselves because they have little or no interest in engaging in the deep community culture of the old timers.  Perhaps, instead, part of the blame lies in the old timers themselves and their rigid intolerance of “newcomers” who they perceive as lacking appreciation for community culture.  The two factions play off of each other—one rejecting the other without fully understanding the depth of the other’s cultural values despite the possibility that a similar cultural base may exist in both.           
It could be, however, that I am still fighting to justify my role in the “brain drain.”  If I’m to be completely honest, I am still squeamish at the thought of living within a tight-knit community where my every action is subject to neighborly scrutiny.  I respect and treasure what my experience in a rural community has given me, but I am still relieved to no longer live there.  But in my heart of hearts, I cannot imagine living the rest of my life in an urban setting.  Niether can I fathom living within one of Salamon’s despised subdivisions, but perhaps I shall fit perfectly in her assignment of post-agrarian communities.  Perhaps I, too, will want the charms of the agrarian lifestyle without sacrificing the urban amenities I’ve come to expect, thereby perpetuating the blurring of rural-urban boundaries and further confusing the future of rural studies.  

1 comment:

  1. I wonder if the face of agriculture and the educational assumptions we make about farmers will change now that a growing number of people are going to school in order to learn how to farm and do so using new technologies, theories of sustainability and environmentalism. Maybe the image of the American farmer will change to one of a highly educated woman. I just heard on NPR the other day that the number of women who run their own farms has doubled in the past ten years.