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Sunday, January 19, 2014

Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America by Patrick J. Carr | LibraryThing

Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America by Patrick J. Carr | LibraryThing:

This is a prime example of why sociology is not science. No testable hypothesis, or repeatable data, just a mélange of anecdotes from which sweeping generalizations are drawn.

I live in a rural area (the closest town to me has a population of 2,500) and as a community college dean (population of the town 27,000 but a district covering hundreds of square miles that borders on NE Iowa)  got to observe many rural high schools over thirty years.  These two researchers, husband and wife, have the temerity to move to a small town in Iowa for 18 months, interview some local students, and from those observations, draw all sorts of conclusions.

To do so , it's obvious they have bought into the national mythology of the small town that probably never existed except in people's minds.  Are rural areas in trouble economically?  Yes. Are we losing population and youth?  Yes.  Has it always been so?  Pretty much. Can it be fixed by adjusting the values of the local high schools? Hardly.  

It's become fashionable to blame the problems of rural areas on agribusiness.  The size of farms has increased, but ALL of the farms in this area are owned by family corporations.  It takes brains to run anything but a hobby farm, those quaint little small acreages that profess to be sustainable by selling "organic" vegetables at the local outdoor market.  No way are they sustainable economically and ALL rely on a second income in the family to pay the bills.
The problems outlined by the authors are not unique to rural America.  They are descriptive of an ever increasing under-class that exists both in rural and urban areas, one that reveals disdain for unions, a desire for the cheapest goods which necessarily fuels jobs abroad and the need for undocumented workers. 

Their solution? Make the high school a "town-saver" by not pushing highly motivated students into four-year colleges and emphasize associate degree and vocational education.  Just where the fuck have they been in the past forty years?  Vocational adjuncts to community colleges were all the rage 30 years ago and have all withered on the vine for lack of students. "Gone are the days of plentiful, well-paying blue-collar factory jobs..." they report.  Well, dah.  That's why the vo-tech schools closed. Students don’t see a future in blue-collar work so they are flocking to four-year schools and community colleges to get into high tech and service industry jobs.  My community college has a going program in training wind-turbine technicians, something they recommend starting.  All they had to do was look forty miles across the Mississippi to see what they recommend already in effect.  

Their recommendation for small towns to embrace immigration, while laudable, would simply distort the labor market even further, driving down wages already too low.  They suggest incentive programs to get professionals back to rural areas, especially in health care.  The University of Illinois started just such a program forty years ago, building three regional medical schools precisely for the purpose of training rural family practitioners.  Health care is thriving in my community but only because of gerontology and the movement of those who left as youngsters to return back. My college town of 27,000 has TWO dialysis centers. That tells you a lot.

Many people resent sociologists like these two and I suspect their data suffers from the "Margret Mead" syndrome if not the "observer effect."  We followed events in Postville, Iowa (could it be the same town pseudonymously named Ellis by the authors?) and read Stephen Bloom's "Postville: A Clash of Culture in Heartland America."  I visited Postville and talked with a friend who was the chief deputy sheriff for a large county in NE Iowa. His take on Bloom?  BS.  Bloom only talked to a few people and many of his conclusions were just wrong.  I have a feeling that Carr and Kefalas made similar mistakes and that they went to "Ellis" with a preconceived idea and found anecdotes to support it.  

There’s also an element of holier-than-thou that really frosts me.  They moved to a small town, spent a short amount of time there, and then purport to tell the residents everything they are doing wrong. I’m a liberal (albeit with libertarian tendencies) but this kind of paternalism I find repugnant.

Note that Carr was born and raised in Ireland and Kefalas studied at Wellesley and the University of Chicago and they now live outside of Philadelphia, no doubt on the Mainline (full disclosure:  I grew up on the Mainline.)

A very weak book with few new ideas.

Edit 1/19/14 After some poking around, it would appear that the community described in the book is Sumner, Iowa. Funny thing. My father and mother grew up in Fayette, Iowa, not fifteen miles east of Sumner.  Why is it that NE Iowa has become the mecca for those examining the problems of rural America? Postville, Oelwein (the book Methland) and now this book. Weird.

I suppose my parents are both examples of the brain drain.  My father left to study at Yale and become a university president on the west coast.  My mother hated the farm in Randalia and talked disparagingly of Iowa the rest of her life.  She went on to earn a Ph.D. in Education and lived on the east coast.  So should the high school in Fayette have tried to move them into the vo-tech track to keep them in Fayette?   And this was 80 years ago.

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