On being a rural social researcher in the age of Trump

21 April 2017

Self-doubt takes a while to process: four months in my case.

These last four months of reflection were precipitated by a comment I observed while in the audience at an education conference.   The speaker, clearly affected, recounted their sense of being flabbergasted to the point of immobility by the suggestion someone had to put to them that Brexit, the politics of Hanson, and Trump, were not shocking to some.  Someone had had the temerity to suggest to them that Brexit, Hanson, and Trump, were indeed someone else’s reality.

Wheather it was a visceral or intellectual reaction I am unsure.  Either way the speaker was clearly shaken to their core.  What’s more it seemed that Brexit, the rise of Hansen, and Trump, was somehow a failure of education.

This comment, and the depth of shock expressed by the presenter, shocked me – I think more than they were. I’m still trying to work out though how my reasons relate to theirs.

For two decades now I have worked in, and with, rural schools and communities; initially as a teacher, more recently as a researcher.  It took me a while to realise what was behind my sense of injustice and the desire to speak up. Eventually I came to understand that this itch was the marginalisation of rural Australia and the realisation that modern education was largely complicit in this.  To succeed in education kids need to become a little bit ‘less rural’. Indeed education is a project of modernity par excellence.  In modernity the city is the beacon of the future and progressives, and the rural the symbol of a bygone era and representative of ‘backwardness’.

Brexit , the rise of Hansen, and Trump, and the associated media coverage of rural voters disgruntled with their lot in the world, being left behind by modern economics and the cultural changes brought on by globalisation, was not nonsensical to me. Let me be clear, I am not for a moment implying any support for the far right positions adopted by the political opportunists who have tapped into some of this discontent. Indeed I regard these as exploiting the marginalisation’s I am concerned about. It does however make me wonder how my concern for those marginalisation’s has empowered these extreme positions.

For two decades I’ve been arguing that the metropolitan mainstream doesn’t understand the rural. Rural education academics have been doing so for much longer – both here and internationally. We have been pointing out how schooling is designed on city-based models, how what we value in education is based on the experience of those in the major cities and how the life of rural children and communities is often absent.  We’ve been saying that we need to find room to value the rural in the cosmopolitan cultural globalisation that is contemporary education.  We’ve been showing how rich forms of literacy exist in rural communities, just not the one school, national, and international, tests value.  We’ve been showing how children in rural communities undergoing decline due to the economic changes of globalisation have been struggling to see a future in their communities.

Have I inadvertently contributed to the rise of rural discontentment, and ultimately these right-wing politics? How do we, as rural education academics, respond? Especially when, by virtue of our position and role, we represent the liberal (metropolitan/city) elite that these movements are reacting against.  We may not have the economic capital, especially in an increasingly casualised academic workforce, but we embody other privileges.

If I think of my conference speaker, he seemed to be saying that I can’t think, and feel, the things I do in relation to the communities I work with AND be what I represent.

Indeed, I realise now I’ve been observing the same slight of hand while following the response to the pivotal six months last year (Brexit in June, our Federal election in July and Trump’s presidential victory in November).  It would seem that many commentators, even my rural academic colleague commentators, have largely failed to separate themselves from the issue. Rather than genuinely engage with communities and the complex issues of rural difference they seem to have resorted to fantasy and doubled down on our biases.

One the one hand rural academics have been arguing rural difference needs to be recognised and valued, but then make arguments that undermine such a view.  For instance, the majority I’ve read argue the need to focus our attention on rural education – to better educate the rural.  Such a view seems to be code for further advancing the move to modernity and urgently making rural areas more liberal, egalitarian, cosmopolitan and integrated into the global economy: the very things the communities seem to reacting against.

In Australia we reduce the issue to race relations, in the UK it is couched in economic terms, while in the USA it is presented as a bit of both.  The response of academics in the field defending the rural from the accusations in the mainstream press has been to argue that this is not the rural they know. However this is to engage in fantasy as a form of self-delusion.  A fantasy in that a picture of rural places as sophisticated and cosmopolitan in the image of metropolitan world is created rather than one that recognises the complexity and multiple dimensions of rural places.  Sure sophisticated and cosmopolitan rural places exist, but they manifest in a different form to metropolitan ones. If they were all like that we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

There also seems to be a strange separation between economics and culture in these arguments. While the arguments recognise many rural areas are economically challenged as result of globalisation, they remain culturally cosmopolitan. Something that seems to contradict the very need to be better educated in order to not hold values of a bygone era.

The self-delusion evident in much of this commentary is perhaps understandable. For how do we deal with the tricky ethical implications the Brexit, Hanson and Trump rural phenomena pose for our work? We have given voice to many of the differences. However we have used them to justify place conscious approaches to enhance the achievement in the metropolitan-cosmopolitan knowledge system these movements are reacting against.  Thus we have simultaneously raised the issues and reinforced the problem.

It would seem that many of us in this field have been blinded by the march of western liberalism, and the centripetalgravity of metropolitan-cosmopolitan values as discourse, and the associated social and economic benefits of globalisation.  Some things won’t change, small family farms, and manufacturing for instance won’t return.  Economics, and our taste for cheap products, dictate as much. Thus our tastes reinforce our commitment to globalisation. But we can, and must, find ways to value cultures and places beyond the cities.

The shifts signified by commentary on the rural voters linked to Brexit, Hanson and Trump put a mirror to our work, and ourselves.  The work suddenly got a lot trickier, and more important.