What Happened in Our History Books?

A study of textbooks over the past 50 years finds that high school students increasingly are being taught that rural America is a deprived and lonely place.

The future of rural economies, communities, and residents depends in part on what Americans at large think about them. What do they think rural people and rural places are like? And where do they get their ideas about rural people and places?
We examined the contents of six widely used high school history books to learn what these books teach their readers across the U.S. about rural life. Our study reveals that over the past 50 years the characterization of rural America has changed.

Earlier books emphasized qualities of individualism and community spirit, stability and adventurousness in rural America, but texts in the past two decades primarily characterize rural as deficient. While both these messages about rural life were present to some degree in the books across all five decades, there has been a decided shift in emphasis. In the more recent texts, rural Americans’ industriousness and contributions to the nation’s democracy are downplayed, supplanted by references to rural ignorance, recklessness and despair.
Americans of all ages, even children and adolescents, typically are critical readers of popular media’s representations of rural life. But they may have less reason to view textbooks with equal skepticism. Even in our digital age, textbooks still provide official knowledge; as shown in a number of recent scholarly studies, students regard the ideas presented in school texts as legitimate. Perceived as authoritative, the contents of schoolbooks may have the power to shape both individual action and public policy.

The Making of Modern America (1956)
With the help of university librarians, we identified six high school history texts that were in wide use nationally between 1956 and 2009, one from each decade: The Making of Modern America from 1956; 1968 and 1975 editions of This is America’s Story; America: The Glorious Republic from 1985; History of the United States from 1993; and the 2009 edition of The Americans.
We examined the contents of the books to examine representations of rurality. We were especially intent on learning whether such representations had changed, how such changes (if present) were manifested in descriptions and accounts of rural people, occupations, values and politics, and how the textbooks might serve either to reinforce or challenge underlying relations of power.
After identifying passages in all the texts that made reference to rural people or places, we then summarized our best conjectures of what the authors were trying to convey in each of them. Twelve themes, in our view, captured the underlying messages of these diverse rural references.

• Rural is an Idyll
• Science ,Technology, and Business Improve, but Ultimately Change Agriculture
• Rural People are Political
• The United States Depends on Human Triumph Over Nature
• Rural People and Rural Life are Deficient
• Agriculture is Built on a Legacy of Slavery and Indenture
• Farmers Have Mixed Responses to Central Government
• America Dominates the World
• Geographical Features Influence Settlement Patterns, Land Use, and Ultimately Culture
• The Development of Infrastructure Provided Crucial Links Between Places
• Agriculture Feeds an Industrial Nation
• Rural and Urban Places Diverge
We then evaluated the emphasis on these themes in each of the books by counting the number of references that corresponded to each theme.

This Is America’s Story (1968)
A 1968 history book emphasizes the themes of rural initiative, hard work and cooperation with a drawing of pioneer farmers cutting through the wilderness to build a log structure together.

The most pronounced change we discovered was the declining representation of “Rural is an Idyll.” — a theme focusing on many positive aspects of rural lif. Such references point to the salutary contributions of small farms to the formation of the national character, the virtues associated with the adventurous pioneer life and with the settled farming life also, the contribution of small farming communities and the frontier to the American ethos of egalitarianism, and the benefits of rural pursuits (acquiring land, hunting, farming, mining, and timbering) for cultivating individual initiative.

As references to this theme decreased over time, there was a significant increase in examples of the theme “Rural People and Rural Life are Deficient.” Within this theme, are characterizations of rural people as ignorant and reckless—and rural life as harsh and demoralizing.  Although both characterizations existed in all of the textbooks, earlier books focused more on the virtues associated with rural experience and later books more on its detriments and discontents.

From Howley, Eppley, and Howley, “Restless pioneers push west”
Rural Life as Deficient“: The authors discerned 12 themes about rural America in high school history textbooks from 1956 to 2009. Representations of the theme “Rural Life as Deficient” increased dramatically in recent texts.

Not surprisingly, given decreases in the proportion of the North American population living in rural areas between 1950 and 2009, the extent to which rurality figured as an important marker of national identity in these high school textbooks decreased substantially over time. The high school texts revealed diminishing concerns about an agrarian way of life and increasing concerns about the inevitable transformation of the sacred rural past into a more secular cosmopolitan present. The following quotes illustrate this change in focus.

From The Making of Modern America (1956):

American farmers… have everything that it takes to provide the American people with a wide variety of nutritious foods…. The American farmer…has worked hard and has had to show remarkable ingenuity and skill to produce so much food. (p. 6)

The Americans (2009)
From The Americans (2009): In the city, lonely migrants from the country often ached for home. Throughout the 1920s, Americans found themselves caught between rural and urban cultures—a tug that pitted what seemed to be a safe, small-town world of close ties, hard work, and strict morals against a big-city world of anonymous crowds, moneymakers, and pleasure seekers. (p. 642)
While rurality was depicted in a variety of ways in the secondary school history books over time, one perspective remained clear and even gained in force between the years 1956 and 2009: that rural people and ways of life are deficient in comparison to urban and suburban people and ways of life. From this perspective rural people are ignorant and backward and thus in need of education. They are lawless, reckless, and dangerous, thus in need of regulation. And they live in places whose isolation and hardships constrain the development of full human potential.

In the 2009 text, for example, rural citizens were characterized by backwardness and inability to function in an increasingly urban world:

For small-town migrants, adapting to the urban environment demanded changes in thinking as well as in everyday living. The city was a world of competition and change. City dwellers read and argued about current scientific and social ideas. (p. 640)

In this passage, the authors used the contrast with city dwellers to imply that rural people were resistant to change (in comparison to urban people, who were adaptable) and complacent (in contrast to urban people, who were competitive). Rural people in this characterization, moreover, neither read nor engaged in debate about current ideas.

History of America
The 1993 history text shows rural life as dreary and impoverished (without contrasting imagery) and then asks students to describe rural life “in their own words.” Thus, the text presents a negative image of rural life and then provokes students to make that idea “their own.”

In the same vein, the 1993 history text differentiated rural and urban by asserting that rural people adhere to religious fundamentalism  — a curious claim, given that by the 1990s Christian fundamentalism, as is well documented, had become a pervasive force nationally.

How might the differences between rural and urban experience bespeak an alternative possibility, something other than urban “opportunity” and rural “deficiency”? To begin, rural people and ways of life, in contrast to the perspectives of these textbooks, might contribute a variety of forceful meanings to the struggles between workers and capitalists, conservationists and resource extractors, localists and cosmopolitans, cultural preservationists and modernists. A school curriculum of this sort would open challenges to dominant forces of capitalism and globalization—positioning rural peoples’ recalcitrance not as the sentimental attachment to an imagined homeland but as a reasonable set of countermoves in the power relations of a complex global economy.

Schools (and by extension, the textbooks used in schools) can and often do actively work to reinforce the dominant ideologies that sustain prevailing power relations. Serving as strong, though sometimes disputed, sources of information, textbooks help readers frame and revise their understandings of the world and themselves. They play a central role in defining what is “correct” and therefore what educators ought to teach. Furthermore, schools’ authority structures reinforce students’ beliefs that textbook representations are truthful.

History of the United States
“The Homesteader’s Wife,” a painting by Harvey Dunn, appears in the 1993 text History of the United States. The book then asks: “What impression does the painting give of life on the plains and the pioneers who lived there?”

Requiring greater honesty about the past and present invites the conception of the more connected future: human nature in league with the natural world, rural and urban people and ways of life understood in their complexity and fallibility, democracy seen as an unfinished project in need of nurture. The stories of rural people and rural ways of life might voice meaningful alternatives to prejudice—not because those alternatives exist in a rural idyll but because rurality itself, in its struggles and vistas, resists both the blandishments and the depredations of the powers that be.
Note: This article condenses a chapter to be published as “Restless pioneers push west: Settled farmers face hardships.” In J. Williams (Ed.), (Re)building memory: School textbooks, identity, and the pedagogies and politics of imagining community. Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense Publishers.”

Karen Eppley lives on a farmette in Central Pennsylvania and is an Assistant Professor of Education at Penn State Altoona. Dr. Aimee A. Howley studies issues relating to rural education and educational policy and currently serves as Associate Dean of The Patton College of Education at Ohio University. Marged Howley is a middle school teacher and educational researcher with Oz Consulting.

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