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March 26, 2008

« Who's Your Australia? | Main | Being Herded Like Cattle »

Over at Dangerously Irrelevant, Scott McCleod, a professor at Iowa State University, considers the spiky world of Who's Your City? and asks:

I just moved to Ames, Iowa. The state capital, Des Moines, is a small creative center just 25 minutes away. Given his methodology, I’m guessing that Ames and Iowa State University are included in Dr. Florida’s statistics on the Des Moines region. Of all medium-sized U.S. regions (0.5 to 1 million people), Dr. Florida ranks Des Moines as the #1 ‘Best Buy’ region for families with children and #2 for professionals age 29–44. That’s cool for me and my family and my professional colleagues. But the reality is that we’re surrounded by fields. Over 90% of the state is corn or soybean fields (or hog farms).

So what do I tell the rural school leaders with whom I’ll be working? They’re already in communities that are struggling to survive. Do I tell them that, because they live in Florida’s ‘huge valleys,’ that their schools and communities are basically doomed? Or is there a way for them to still be economically productive and viable?

What do you guys think?


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Zoe B

I have the impression that school teachers live everywhere. They may avoid the spiky cities if their pay rate does not match the higher cost of living. If people who choose to be teachers tend to value being rooted in a community, there also is less desire to leave for a spiky place.

Rural schools might be underfunded, but I think their real problem is the educational level and expectations of the parents. I have a friend who was a middle-school vice principal in charge of discipline in a nearby district whose residents are not so well-educated as ours. He said the hardest cases were the kids whose parents didn't care about their kids' lack of achievement or self-control. The attitude of 'I survived without it so why should you get any better?' is a killer.

Rural schools can have certain advantages. They tend to be smaller, so the in-the-middle students get some attention too. You need them to fill out the football team or the musical chorus. I knew someone who lived in African villages during his elementary years (his parents were missionaries). He developed a strong ambition to succeed academically because school was the only available avenue for competition. My school district is full of academic families, so we have bragged about being years ahead on the No Child Left Behind standards for achievement. However, there is a nearby town whose elementary students reached 100% of compliance years ago. How do they do it in a community that has substantially lower levels of education than in my own? This 'red state' town committed itself to maintaining their 100-student neighborhood school (vs consolidation into a larger school) even though it meant higher taxes. The school has an active PTA and a large crew of volunteers committed to the success of every pupil.

A motivated small community might be the place to start reforming our 'industrial' school system for the needs of the creative economy, particularly at the preschool and elementary levels. My school system is full of hyper-competitive students and parents who fear that the 'best' colleges and universities will pass over students who eschew the established paths to academic achievement. We have so much to lose that we are afraid to innovate. Our 'alternative' high school was intended to serve the gifted and the quirky students with more individualized or cross-disciplinary curriculum, co-op work experiences, and the like. In practice it has attracted the emotionally troubled students who benefit from a smaller community. Emotionally troubled students are more at-risk for destructive behaviors. Especially among adolescents, such behaviors are contagious. Parents of 'successful' kids don't want their kids to hang in that crowd. So we encourage our best students to think inside the box.

Compare this to the now-famous experience of Reggio Emilia, a small northern Italian town that was devastated in World War II. The residents wanted their kids to get a good education, but buildings were in ruins and nobody had much money. Their solution: follow the children's interests, be creative with available resources, and turn on a dime. Kids might study snow for awhile: talk about where snow comes from, compare different kinds of snow, draw it, use it for cooking, play in it, devise math problems around it, tell stories about it. Children would tell what they wanted to know, and within a day the curriculum would address it. When the kids got tired of snow, they'd quickly move on to something else. If kids asked a question that the parents didn't know how to answer, they had to do some quick research. This kind of education can use professional teachers, but the parents need to be committed to support pupils' and teachers' needs. It is incredibly hard to sustain in a society full of busy parents who want to delegate responsibility for their children's learning and need school to serve as a babysitter. Yet it teaches kids how to learn and fosters a love of learning for its own sake. If life in the hinterlands allows parents and schools to shape education to the individual child's needs more than is possible in spiky places, they may be good places to adapt schools to suit the creative economy.

Michael Wells

Interesting that it's educators who are asking these questions (100% of a sample of two so far). Maybe that's a hint of how to approach this major issue. Perhaps a network of rural or small town teachers and professors would be a place to start the discussion from the ground up? I sure don't know the answers to Dean Dad and Scott's questions about what to tell their constituents.

It seems that the biggest culture shock of the creative age isn't in the creative cities, maybe not even the rust belt cities, but the hinterlands. The family farm has been replaced by corporate and mechanized agriculture, subsidized by the federal government but with little benefit for the locals. The influx of foreign vegetables, fruit, lumber, etc. has further hit their markets.

And there are very different kinds of rural problems. California's Central Valley suffers from being too close to the Bay Area, you can commute there. North Dakota suffers from being too far away, you have to move away to be anywhere else. I don't know about Ames, Iowa but it may be similar to the rural areas surrounding Portland. A friend who grew up in a former logging town said about the high school "any male child who shows up is in the top half of his class." I just did some work for a small farming city's school district, which functions as the center for social services as well as education.


I live in Vermillion, SD, and teach at the University of South Dakota. What strikes me is that the definition of "creative" in "creative class" is rather limited. I find it humorous that residents in towns in the rural Midwest are almost instantaneously ruled out as possessing much creative vitality or demonstrating academic rigor. Who defines "creativity?" Cannot midwestern craft shows, university dance teams, or family restaurants be considered "folkways?" Or does the lack of melanin and money render them meritless?

Michael Wells


A common misconception, that this is about people's creativity. Richard is an economist and what his books talk about is regional economies based on creative work -- high tech, research, design as well as arts. And that those industries are becoming increasingly concentrated, while much of the country and world are falling behind economically. In fact, one of his main points is that everyone is creative and the need to bring the benefits of the creative class economy to rural and old industrial regions. Just as the definition of working class as industrial labor didn't mean that farmers and bankers didn't work, the definition of creative class doesn't mean that people outside those professions aren't creative.

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