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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

What are the values in small towns?

Sarah Palin has presented herself as an advocate of small town values. The question is, just what comprises small town values?

It is not as if the question has not been answered. The problem is that the answers are contained in a huge strain of American literature. And that literature, as with most literature, does not get read. Shortly after the Civil War writers, including Mark Twain, began examining the attitudes and cultures of small towns. During the early 20th century, most of America's major writers contributed to a literary movement known as the "revolt from the village." They chronicled the small-mindedness, social oppression, and social pathologies that drove young people out of small towns. Sociology corroborated the revolt by recording a constant migration of young people from small towns to large urban communities during 20th century. The outmigration is not as pronounced today because there simply are not that many people left in small towns to make up a social movement.

Today the attitude of young people toward their small towns is hardly one of revolt. They simply accept the idea that they will follow the century-long pattern and leave when they graduate from high school. I have read thousands of papers by college students who wrote about small towns they came from. The had fond memories of family and sometimes of school, but none of them considered living in their hometowns. They saw no way to make a living or use their talents and education. Many, many students loathed their small towns. To them small town life was characterized by mean and small minded people who gathered at the town cafe each day and immersed themselves in malicious gossip.

NSU had a president a few years back who devoted much time to things like slogans and images. He came up with a slogan that called NSU "the gateway institution." The regents and a number of business people did not like the slogan because they assumed it was appealing to the desire of many to use education as the ticket out of small towns and out of the state. They assumed right, of course.

In paper after paper students wrote about the cloud of meanness and resentment that formed the social climate in their hometowns. Their motivation in school and college was to leave that atmosphere of withering oppressive parochialism behind. I recall quite a few students who would not even return to their hometowns for holidays.

My own experience with small town nastiness came when my spouse and I placed foreign exchange students in homes. Late one night we received a call from the parents of a girl from Japan telling us we had to rescue the child from this "insane" little town where she was placed. Factions in this little town were at each others' throats constantly and she thought all Americans, if like this, were vicious and evil. Fortunately, we were able to relocate the girl in a larger community where civility lasted more than a few minutes.

The fighting and parochial hatreds in small towns has been well recorded in American letters. Their values are do not represent the best of America. Our writers have been telling us that for 150 years. If people in South Dakota want to understand why people leave South Dakota, Hamlin Garland tells some very fine tales about those reasons.

1 comment:

Douglas said...

The agrarian myth takes more forms than Hofstader even assumed.

Not sure of the validity of the above, but what too often seems to be rural good neighbor policy is if something is good enough to steal, a neighbor will steal it.

There is value in small and even in small rural, but it takes somebody a lot smarter and educated than Palin to make that kind of a leap converting those values, etc into being a good VP or President.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States