H.S. History Textbooks Increasingly Degrade Rural People, Life

By Diette Courrégé Casey — February 17, 2012 3 min read
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The theme that “rural people and rural life are deficient” increasingly is apparent in high school American history textbooks, while the theme that “rural life is an idyll” is less so, according to new research.

The findings in “Restless Pioneers Push West: Settled Farmers Face Hardships” were presented at the National Rural Education Association convention this past fall, and the research will be used for a chapter in an upcoming book that’s in press.

Authors Aimee Howley, of Ohio University, Karen Eppley, of Pennsylvania State University at Altoona, and Marged Howley, of Oz Consulting, analyzed high school American history textbooks published between 1956 and 2009 by Houghton-Mifflin. They looked at one textbook from each decade, specifically 1956, 1968, 1975, 1985, 1993, and 2009. (Houghton-Mifflin did not release high school history textbooks on a more regular publication schedule.)

They approached their research with three main questions:
• How did U.S. secondary-school history textbooks’ representations of rural life change over time?
• How did those changes affect the narrative treatment of rural people (e.g., farmers and frontiersmen), land and land use, characteristically rural work (e.g., farming, mining), rural communities and their values, the political perspectives of rural citizens, and the qualities and value of the natural world?
• How did the textbook treatment of rural people and places reinforce ideologies that functioned to sustain or counter relations of power between dominant and subordinate groups?

The researchers didn’t analyze supplementary materials, such as workbooks or tests, or chapter summaries, vocabulary word lists, and end-of-chapter questions. They also excluded descriptions of American Indian life (they said that culture has not influenced mainstream perceptions of rurality to an appreciable degree), and they excluded narratives that presented rural places solely in geographical terms. In the textbooks, they identified passages that referenced rural places, people and ways of life, and they coded each passage with keywords and phrases to characterize its meaning.

Here’s an example from the study:

... One of us used the short phrase—frontiersmen sought adventure—to code the following passage from the 2009 book: 'As we know, there are always men who love adventure. The frontier attracted such men, even though they faced dangers and hardships' (p. 114)."

Once they compiled a master list of codes, they saw two significant thematic categories—"rural life is an idyll” and “rural people and rural life are deficient"—represented in all books, with the latter growing in salience over the years and the former diminishing. Researchers say those themes lead to a contradictory message about the character of rural people.

The paper said some of the positive aspects of rural life emphasized included “the salutary contributions of small farms to the formation of the national character, the virtues associated with the adventurous pioneer life as well as those associated with the settled farming life, 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 the country’s proportion of Americans living in rural areas decreased, the extent to which rurality was important to national identity did, too.

On the flip side, the textbooks increasingly contrasted rural residents with those in more populated areas as deficient, specifically asserting that they were “ignorant and backward and thus in need of education; (2) they are lawless, reckless, and dangerous and thus in need of regulation; and (3) they live in places whose isolation and hardships constrain the development of full human potential,” according to the research. The most common problem attributed to rural residents was ignorance.

The research went on to hypothesize on why this shift in the textbooks might be occurring.

It would be interesting to hear what veteran history teachers have to say. Do they agree with these findings? And will this research have ramifications for future textbooks and the way they reference rural people and ways of life?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rural Education blog.