Rural Schooling in Mobile Modernity: Returning to the Places I’ve Been – Review of Michael Corbett’s Article

As a teacher who has taught exclusively in rural locations, I found Michael Corbett’s journal article published in the Journal of Research in Rural Education deeply relatable. A person does not have to be a social scientist or doctoral level academic to observe how rural and urban residents are divided into social, economic, cultural and intellectual strata. Modern history has seen exponential growth in what the average person knows about the world outside of their community. It is not a coincidence that modernity has been dominated by diaspora stories.

Corbett conducted two years of research that included, “…field work, fifty in-depth interviews and extensive quantitative socio-spatial analysis of educational trajectories and work histories….” (Corbett, 2009) His research lead him to make four main arguments. The first point he argued was that formal education encourages the disembeddment of individuals from their communities and has little to offer those who intend to stay. His second point was that access and experience of formal education caused residents of rural communities to be positioned according to social-spatial identities. Third, these strata within rural communities are largely based on gender and social class structures. Women have traditionally faced difficulties in getting resource industry jobs, which made education an easier route for them to move out. There was a corresponding tendency to see formal education as a feminine pursuit, only suitable for women, and for feminized men who could not handle masculine occupations. Corbett’s fourth argument was that the world is shrinking due to advancements in communication technologies, while simultaneously growing larger due to easier transportation options. These changes have caused men to be less mobile than in the past because the urban labour market has more choice in employees, which has resulted in employers raising their educational expectations of candidates. Unprepared to face the formal educational system where they have learned to accept they would always fail, they settle for a simpler, land-based lifestyle in their rural communities.

I found the concept of formal education being a functional meritocracy interesting. Corbett said people believe that when it comes to formal education, “…people get what they deserve or can handle….” (Corbett, 2009) In other words, the failure to acquire a post-secondary education could be taken as proof that the person is not capable of succeeding in the formal educational system. After taking Dr. Paul Orlowski’s class on neoliberalism in education, the concept of meritocracy within formal education made me think about all the ways our educational system is being influenced by neoliberal ideology.

In Dr. Shaun Murphy’s course on narrative inquiry, I read an article called Playfulness, “World”-Travelling, and Loving Perception by Marίa Lugones. Some of the points she made came back to me as I read the section of Corbett’s article where he said:

Rather than having to choose between particular fixed identity positions and then work out how to behave coherently within them, it seemed to me that identity construction was more powerfully understood in mobile terms. In other words, social actors can float in and out of identity positions and indeed the differential ability of some actors to achieve this identity flexibility or mobility is itself an important measure of power. (Corbett, 2009)

Lugones wrote about the world-travelling many people are forced to do. In particular, Lugones said women-of-color are required to shift their identity repeatedly through their day in order to cope with the challenges of living in a world where their voices traditionally have been the last to be heard. At the time that I read this article, I connected a point Lugones made to a Netflix comedy special by Wanda Sykes. Sykes talked about how difficult it was for her to adjust to the idea of playing with her white children. White people in America have the freedom to play in a way people-of-colour do not, especially when it comes to public spaces. The reality is that playing in public can get black people killed. Lugones said that people-of-colour are required to walk between worlds, changing how they behave and speak to fit the space. Corbett made a similar point in the above quote, saying that our mobile world requires people to adjust their identity according to location.

Corbett described encountering people who did not think the way he did. He said, “Their spirituality was rooted in spatial and temporal connection rather than in mobility.” (Corbett, 2009) I was disappointed he did not take this opportunity to mention rural Indigenous communities and the land-based spirituality that tends to keep them rooted in particular places. There is a similar tension in these communities as Corbett observed in other rural locations, between attitudes of “there’s nothing here for you” and the desire for youth to bring back education to the community. I would argue the tension is more pronounced in First Nations communities, where elders lament the loss of language and culture and blame mobility for difficulties in revitalization. I would be interested in knowing if failure to move on to post-secondary education is stigmatized in Indigenous communities the way Corbett said it was in non-Indigenous rural communities. He said this was especially the case for girls in rural communities, where it was believed that smart girls were supposed to leave. I wonder if this also is more pronounced in Indigenous communities, where improvements in the education and quality of life of women stand to have the greatest impact on the community as a whole.

Jack Shelton (2005) described the ability to survive despite challenges, and in defiance of failures to succeed within formal educational settings, as consequential learning. Rural residents display an aptitude for this kind of learning, along with a strong sense of place and self. The same connection to place and even to self is seen as inappropriate in urban settings, if not viewed as xenophobic or racist. Rather than the traditional question of where someone came from, Corbett said the polite question to ask someone in urban settings has become, “Where are you going?”

On the other hand, Corbett also suggested that changes in the world are beginning to highlight the need to find ways to allow people to walk more easily between worlds. Rather than trying to keep youth from leaving, the more appropriate challenge is to:

1) Support and convince most of these youth to go and pursue higher education and a more cosmopolitan experience, and, 2) to create the conditions for their return to rural communities that make this return both feasible and attractive. (Corbett, 2009)

Corbett outlined several suggestions for how to make this shift happen. He said we need to move away from the idea that schools need to be large and centralized so they can provide variety and choice. He emphasized that embracing a small school culture does not mean the world needs to shrink for students. Upgrading communication networks will be the key to keeping this from happening. Teaching geography, ecological and environmental studies will allow students to step-up as stewards of the Earth.

Intense interest in apocalyptic stories in literature, as well as other mediums, demonstrates the recognition that the current state of the world is untenable. Scientists say that our future will be characterized by disembeddment, but the general sense is that it might be a reversal of the past. Large urban centers will no longer be capable of maintaining such high populations. In a future like this, education that allows people to localize the economy might be the change we need. I happen to think that the Meadow Lake Tribal Council has the right idea with its focus on Land-Based Learning. Finding ways to make this part of every class rather than a stand-alone course will be a challenge. This is especially true of high school courses, where there is still a greater focus on the ends over the means.

Ever since I read chapter six of Warrior Women last semester in Dr. Shaun Murphy’s class, I have been tormented by the implications of some of my experiences in light of what the women expressed in this chapter. I had someone give me a piece of advice during my internship. The person told me that I should not teach in a band school right out of university if I hoped to have a career in the public school system. At the time, I dismissed the advice as backward, if not flat out racist. In the years since I have made enough observations to wonder if there might be an unfortunate degree of truth in what the person told me. In chapter six of Warrior Women, the writers expressed being treated as second-rate teachers as a result of working in Indigenous schools or because they were educated in Indigenous education programs. Corbett addressed the issue of rural schools having a hard time attracting vibrant and forward-thinking teachers. However, he completely failed to address the prejudice against teaching in band-run schools. When I started my career, teachers who left band-run schools after teaching for ten years had their experience set as zero in public schools. Their experience was considered worthless. This has changed, but I suspect the prejudice when comparing resumes still burns bright.

References

Corbett, M. (2009). Rural Schooling in Mobile Modernity: Returning to the Places I’ve Been. Journal of Research in Rural Education, 1-13.

Lugones, M. (1987, Summer). Playfulness, “World” Travelling, and Loving Perception. Hypatia, Vol. 2, No. 2, 3-19.

Shelton, J. (2005). Consequential learning: A public approach to better schools. Montgomery, AL: New South Books.

Young, M. I.-L. (2015). Warrior Women: Remaking postsecondary places through relational narrative inquiry. Bingley, UK: Emerald Group Publishing (PAPERBACK VERSION).

 

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