Yesterday Don stumbled upon what looked to be an academic paper published in a periodical called "Education and Culture," Spring 2002. The paper is titled "Culture, Poverty and Education in Appalachian Kentucky." Seldom have we read anything so breathtakingly condescending.
The Appalachian culture stretches back centuries. Ever since reading the Foxfire books (documenting Appalachian culture in the 1970s), I've admired the people for their self-sufficiency and rural skills.
But the author of this piece (Constance Elam) seems to think it an almost willful act of defiance that the Appalachian people like their culture and don't want to alter, change, or leave it behind.
Dr. Elam writes: Appalachian Kentucky has a long history of poverty and subsistence living that has permeated the social structure and culture, including public education. Consequently, poverty has actually postponed or delayed the development of public education, as well as contributed to nonparticipation in the education system by much of the population well into the 20th century. … "Livin's more important than schoolin'" is a powerful statement by one mountain woman that condenses a complex socio-economic situation into the priorities of mountain life.
The author cites reference literature which "describe a multi-faceted culture that includes geographic and social isolation; the relationship of the people to the land; the value of kinship ties; the relevance of schooling; a stagnant economy; distrust of outsiders and government; powerlessness and reluctance to change; fatalism; and the results of political and economic exploitation."
Elam notes: "Settling into wealth, comfort, and the benefits of a regulated society was not the mountaineer dream or preference. ... The settlers in the mountains were rugged, ingenious, and wanted to be left alone."
Speaking as a "mountaineer" (though in Idaho), I've got news for Dr. Elam: Not everybody wants your definition of wealth, comfort, or the "benefits" of a regulated society. Some of us like to live life on our own terms and – get this – be left alone, particularly by condescending liberal do-gooders who think they know best.
Elam seems insulted that the Appalachian people are "existence-oriented" rather than "improvement-oriented," without the least consideration that her types of "improvements" often result in destruction of family unity, church participation, the barter economy, ties to the land, and other indicators of self-reliance. In short, not everyone thinks it's a step up to live alone in a condo in New York City.
Elam continues: "This traditional status quo held a certain comfort, and change was undesirable. Fatalism and religious fundamentalism developed to deal with the harshness of the land, the consequences of poverty, and the physical isolation."
(Does this remind you of someone sayings how "bitterly" rural people cling to their guns and Bibles?)
Since this paper was published in an education periodical, Elam focuses on the shocking and frightful neglect of educational opportunities for the Appalachian people, particularly in public education (which, presumably, excludes the people from the possibility of employment at a Fortune 500 company, apparently a fate worse than death). Frankly, with the state of public education lately, maybe this "neglect" isn't such a bad thing.
Elam writes: "The mountains and hollows isolated the people from the rest of Kentucky and the rest of the country, creating a kinship system of shared work, support, and recreation. All family members were needed for tending crops and farm animals, hunting and fishing, and taking care of younger children, performing household duties, and providing continuity."
So in other words, everyone is valued and needed. Families take care of each other. Work is shared. No one’s shunted off to an Old Folk’s Home to rot away. Moms don’t dump their kids in daycare while pursuing high-powered careers. Dads don’t have an hour-long commute. And this is bad ... how?
Elam seems particularly affronted by the poverty of the region. She points, over and over, to poverty as the deciding influence in all things, from religious beliefs to the standard of living: "The close kinship ties prevented many from leaving the area to find work for fear of leaving the security of family and comfort of the mountain lifestyle. Thus, poverty persisted."
But here's the thing: Sure, by urban criteria, the Appalachian people are dirt-poor. But to cope, they've developed a rich culture, strong family ties, a strong faith, and the "rugged individualism" that seems to offend Ms. Elam so deeply. I dunno, it sounds to me like these people are wealthy beyond belief in everything but money.
Since the article focuses on education, I should remind Ms. Elam that not all education takes place within schools. Somehow, since the dawn of human civilization, children have managed to become educated enough to survive, learning skills at their parents' knees and applying them as adults. Appalachian culture clearly prefers this method of education, not that espoused by Ms. Elam.
This reminds me of conversations we had with our kids on the subject of animal intelligence during our homeschooling years. "How intelligent are animals?" they would ask, and I would reply, "As intelligent as they need to be to survive."
The same might be applied to Appalachian culture: "How educated are they?" "As educated as they need to be to survive."
I do find it interesting that a more recent article reprinted in Scientific American asks, "Are people in Appalachia deprived of the benefits of technology, or are they protecting themselves from harmful effects of its misuse? ... It’s unfair to brand Appalachian skepticism as ignorance – particularly when it questions the corporations who are selling full-time surveillance of the general population for a considerable profit. ... Resistance is not ignorance."
In NYC, you might need a Ph.D. in Victimology just to survive. In Appalachia, you don't. Deal with it.
I'm not claiming Appalachia is a flawless paradise without any problems. What I am saying is solutions offered by people like Ms. Elam are not what the people want – or need.
Elam concludes her paper by essentially hinting the Appalachian people are hopeless when it comes to modern standards of education, technology, and cultural benefits.
Good for them. I say, keep it up. Ms. Elam can go suck an egg.
First off, let me say I think Patrice is a little hard on Dr. Elam. I say "Dr." because I came across a reference to Elam's doctoral dissertation from the University of Texas in Austin titled "That’s Just the Way It Was: Teacher Experiences in Appalachian Kentucky, 1930-1960." I'm assuming her dissertation committee found her work acceptable and granted her a Ph.D.
When I say I think Patrice is being a little tough on Dr. Elam, it’s because Dr. Elam is simply a product of her environment and her education. She says in her dissertation she is native to eastern Kentucky, and I've no reason to doubt her. In reference to her husband, Dr. Elam wrote: "We are both Kentuckians and share not only love for one another, but also a love for the Appalachian Mountains and the Appalachian people. Because he dreamed bigger than I, our journey took us out of Kentucky and into an exciting and wonderful world."
Into an exciting and wonderful world. Huh. Sucks to be you, Kentucky.
If there is a single word that I could use to describe Dr. Elam, that word would be "elitist." I don't mean to be insulting when I use that term, however. Most of us are elitist in one way or another. As an example, I'm a country-boy elitist. I fully believe the self-dependent rural lifestyle that Patrice and I share is superior to living in a Metroplex.
Now Dr. Elam doesn't exactly say she was one of those po’ folks living in the hollows of eastern Kentucky, so I don't really know whether she has ever really shared the life experiences of the hillbillies she writes about so condescendingly.
But I have. True, I've never lived in Kentucky; but I've lived in large cities, small cities, large towns, small towns, and far enough back in the sticks that the nearest small town was hours away. And it should be telling of my own elitist preferences that, at 61 years of life, I'm back in the sticks.
In the above-referenced article, Dr. Elam seems to be truly confused. She simply cannot understand why, with all the Golden Opportunities modern society presents, the people who inhabit the Appalachian region don't really seem interested in reaching out to grab the ring. But I do. During the urban phases of my life, I've lived in places where I didn't know the names of the people in the apartment next to me, one door down. I've lived in cities were making eye contact could be dangerous. I've lived in places where you needed to check out the park grass before you sat down to make sure you avoided the used needles.
Conversely, today I can walk down any street – at midnight – of the largest nearby town without any trepidation whatsoever. My daughters could (and did) go for all-day hikes in the woods and fields that surround our home with no fear of the two-legged predators that infest cities like New York, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
Dr. Elam quotes one country woman who says,"Livin's more important than schoolin'," and she is obviously horrified at that opinion. But here's the thing: Livin' IS schoolin'.
Both Patrice and I have advanced degrees. However, our many years of college education made absolutely no difference in the life we've come to lead. Quite truthfully, we both wasted a lot of time in higher academia (except of course that I met her while going to college, so there's that going for it).
Dr. Elam's biggest sin, in both her article and her dissertation, seems to be she cannot recognize that being happy with one's life is far more important than whatever letters you can stack behind your name. She lists concepts and beliefs shared by the people of the Appalachia (such as pride of place, strong family relationships, religious beliefs – which she refers to as fundamentalism – and a work ethic), but she fails to recognize what she's actually listing are the ingredients for a happy life. I know this because I’ve seen far too many people who have none of these things … and they are rarely happy. Living is far more important than schooling.
As I said earlier, elitism is common. I'm a true elitist when it comes to country living. But there is a difference between Dr. Elam and myself. Dr. Elam would want to find some way to change my life, the lives of my children, my friends and my neighbors; but I have no interest in changing hers. She's welcome to live in the cities. Her urban preferences – no matter how vapid, shallow, and soul-killing – are none of my business.
Dr. Elam does seem rather disheartened near the end of her article. One gets the impression she feels like her enlightened words are mostly falling on deaf (and dumb) ears. She laments the Appalachian people are a "culture evolved from both the physical and social isolation of the people, which led to such cultural characteristics as strong family ties, reluctance to change, distrust for outsiders, acceptance of poverty, and little need for schooling."
Could be. But as one of those hill folk, let me leave this with Dr. Elam, a quote from a portion of a song from my youth, sort of an anthem for us hillbillies:
'Cause I ain't askin' nobody for nothin'
If I can't get it on my own.
If you don't like the way I'm livin'
You just leave this long haired country boy alone.