The Folklore Project


Dahlonega, GA and
Kent, Ohio 

Including "All Y'all"

By Dr. Adam Jordan and Dr. Todd Hawley

The Confused Academy and the Role of the Social Studies in the Trump Era

There is a winding road
Across the shifting sand
And room for everyone
Living in the Promiseland
— Willie Nelson

In the wee morning hours of November 9, 2016, Donald J. Trump became the president-elect of the United States of America. Gasping sounds of shock could be heard across the nation as the Twitter and Facebook accounts of academics exploded in shock at the realization of what was not before considered a possibility…a Trump presidency. In the weeks that have followed, we have witnessed the academy trudge its way through the grief cycle:  denial, anger, bargaining, and depression. The fifth stage, acceptance, is still on the horizon for many, but with cabinet nominations such as billionaire school-choice advocate Betsy DeVos, the reality of the task ahead is becoming more certain and perhaps more daunting. 

This commentary, however, is not intended to break down the politics of 2016. It is not even intended to discuss Trump’s exploitation of systematic “othering,” which dug deep into our tribal instincts as human beings, deep into systematic racism and classism, and caused many of us to begin to talk about the troubles “they” were causing and “their” contributions to a less great America. This commentary is not even intended to dissect the politics of fear. We have no doubt that those commentaries, articles, and discussions will be plentiful in the current academic landscape, and we look forward to reading and contributing to that necessary discussion. Instead, in this commentary, we would like to contribute just one voice to a conversation not often had among academicians: why the Academy just does not “get” rural, country folks. In having that conversation, we would also like to suggest a transformative role the Social Studies can play as a change agent.

First, however, in full disclosure:  We are Southerners, proud Southerners, even. Adam is a first-generation college student from Pocataligo, Georgia. He owns guns, hunts, drives a four-wheel-drive pickup truck, speaks with a drawl, can catch catfish while discussing critical pedagogy, and is constantly asked by graduate students to stop calling them “ma’am.”  He was a social studies teacher and a special education teacher, but is now an assistant professor of special education in rural North Georgia. Todd was born and raised in Athens, Georgia. His grandfather was a professor. He grew up enjoying the Athens music scene, he does not own a gun, and he does not drive a pickup truck, but he does enjoy the Statler Brothers and a good NASCAR race. Todd was a social studies teacher and is now an associate professor of social studies education in the red state of Ohio. Aside from Adam’s discussing of critical pedagogy while lacing a hook with chicken liver and Todd’s enjoyment of restrictor-plate racing, you may have typified each of our political affiliations and along with that made several additional assumptions. And that’s what this commentary is about. The Academy is not tuned in to rural America, and it is time we start talking about it. 

While the history of rural America, and in our particular instances, the history of Southern “identity” is much too complex to be outlined in a brief commentary, we would like to present three areas where we have experienced the Academy misunderstanding country folks:  the vilifying stereotypes of the rural Southerner and rural folk from the Rust Belt, a lack of recruitment efforts in rural communities, and non-inclusive social studies preparation at the K-12 level. However, we want to make clear that we do not present these three areas as damning, citation-loaded condemnations of the Academy. Post-election, many have suggested that we should hold up a metaphorical mirror so that America can take a look at herself and decide if she’s pleased. We simply offer this same symbolic mirror to the Academy. It is our guess that in some places, the words that follow will resonate strongly, and in others, they may not. Either way, we do not believe now is the time to load up on citations that prove “our side.”  We are all already pretty good at that. Instead, we offer these three criticisms as starters for an overdue, but important conversation on where we stand with rural America.

The Redneck Effect

Undoubtedly, Donald Trump carried the rural vote in overwhelming fashion. It would be easy to think, then, that a drive through rural America, and particularly the rural South and the Rust Belt of the Midwest, would offer you the constant, still-ringing sounds of chants of “lock her up.”  For sure, those folks are around and making noise in the South, the Rust Belt, and other parts of the country. But, the danger comes in assuming that the flagrant, offensive, Trump supporter highlighted at a Trump rally can personify most of rural America. Instead, our experiences working and living in red states during the 2016 election suggest that those folks were not as plentiful as one might have expected. We know plenty of people who expressed their concern with the direction Trump was going, but still thought he was “the best choice they had.”  Those people cast ballots for Trump, but they weren’t, nor will they be, chanting “lock her up” or cheering at the thought of breaking up the families of 11 million undocumented individuals living and working in the United States. 

As the Academy, are we perpetuating the myth that country folks are “rednecks,” knowing that word is loaded with all types of assumptions of racism, bigotry, nationalism, and xenophobia?  Perhaps an even tougher question, how are we supporting those students that may come into our classrooms with stereotypical “redneck” tendencies?  Adam recalls stepping foot onto campus for the first time as an undergraduate at the University of Georgia. The horn of his pickup truck played “Dixie,” and the front license plate held a version of the Georgia flag as it existed from 1956-2001. He considered those things a part of his heritage, not symbols that could be perceived as hate. Now, he understands that perception as the manifestation of privilege, but those words would have meant little at the time. It is hard for the Academy to wrestle with the reality that as young students come to us, they may not be coming with positions of ingrained racism, even if some of the words and symbols they bring are in fact racist. 

In Adam’s case, as interactions with individuals from different cultures and experiences with knowledgeable and patient professors unfolded, the “Dixie” horn was disconnected and the old Georgia flag was taken down. This was not a putting away of cultural symbols out of shame, but rather a deeper embracing of the reality of rich, complex Southern culture, and the reality that parts of that historical culture were symbols of hate with which he did not want to be associated. Through social education, he realized those things did not represent him at all. Is it possible that as the Academy in the Trump Era, we may be typifying and alienating students with great potential as change agents, long before they get the chance to examine and reexamine themselves and their histories.

The Brain Drain

Thankfully, universities in the 21st century are broadening their admission standards to recruit students of racial diversity, but are we doing enough to reach out and include those students from communities that offer additional socioeconomic and cultural diversity?  Are we recruiting rural America?  We don’t mean, “Are students from rural communities going to college?”  Instead, we mean, “Are we reaching out to rural community members because we see them as an asset to our collective mission?”  When we reflect on our admissions models, which are largely quantitative and privileging of those from school districts with broader financial resources and access to Advanced Placement course offerings, are we excluding many subsets of a diverse and bright population, including the subset of rural America that so often said they felt ignored and voiceless in the 2016 political landscape?  Beyond admission algorithms, are we looking at rural communities and seeing the value they bring qualitatively?  For example, are we reaching out to farm communities and saying, “Hey, have you looked at our engineering programs?”  Or, have we looked at the rural communities who have expressed being unheard in the 2016 political landscape and said, “Hey, have you thought about a career dedicated to helping make the unheard heard?  How about a career in public school teaching, social work, or nursing?”  

The rural “brain drain” is a well-documented phenomenon. We know that in rural areas of the United States, some of the “best and brightest” high school students go off to college, never to return to their rural communities as working contributors. That depiction, while technically true, tells a false story. If we continue to discuss the “best and brightest” through limited terms, we inherently suggest the lie that those that remain to work, live, and contribute to rural communities must not have been the best or the brightest. This discounts the brilliant work of small-business owners in rural communities, of farmers, welders, truck drivers, telecommunications specialists, public school maintenance workers, and any number of vital contributors to the American economy.
Given this reality, as the Academy, perhaps we should ask ourselves two difficult questions. First, how are we recruiting a wide range of student populations from rural America to our institutions?  Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, what are we offering them once they become members of our campus community?  Are we listening to their concerns and intentions post-graduation as rural Americans, or are we hoping to educate them and then move them along?  These are usually students who have experience with poverty, with non-traditional families, and marginalized schools. Why not leverage their real world experience as part of making the world better for others?

Transformative, Inclusive K-12 Social Studies

Finally, the last question is targeted at those of us in teacher education and specifically those of us who prepare teachers to teach the Social Studies. In what ways are we preparing pre-service teachers to begin to tackle some of the obvious issues that became so prominent in the 2016 election?  Issues that, we know, have existed for ages. It is our position that November 9, 2016 should serve as a wakeup call to Social Studies educators and teachers. In our curricula, are we tackling issues of systematic racial injustice?  Are we preparing students to discuss critical issues?  Are we teaching the importance of inclusiveness of all people not “regardless of,” but rather “because of” the positive aspects of a racially, religiously, culturally diverse America?  Most importantly, are we giving students an opportunity to express their voice in a judgment-free environment, and then helping students think through their positions through historical, economic, sociological, and political contexts?  It is through the Social Studies that we can begin these conversations. The Social Studies offer the platform for helping to shape an inclusive America. 

As social studies teacher educators, we need to create spaces in our programs for students to discuss current social movements like #blacklivesmatter. Many rural students have not had the opportunity to openly discuss race and racism within their schools and families, so, we should not be surprised when they arrive at our colleges and universities and say, “This is the most diverse place I have ever been.” They may not have had a friend who was openly gay or a family member who was married to someone of a different race. But they have heard a classmate say, “That’s so gay,” or a family member ask, “Was he black?” when discussing a cousin who was secretly pregnant. If they have never had a space to honestly discuss the influence this has had on their own thinking, how do we think they will approach teaching when they graduate?

Given that most of the rural teachers we work with want to return to their communities and teach, we find this discussion particularly meaningful. The world is changing, and all social studies teachers need to know how to be change agents in their communities. This could include opening up space to welcome in new diverse families and students into their schools and communities and to provide new spaces for diversity that cannot be seen (gay, questioning, transgender students and families). We want rural teachers to be advocates and leaders for anti-racist, anti-biased, anti-dumbass practices that are common in all communities, but less often discussed in small, rural communities. Without teachers who can do this, especially social studies teachers, we are a long way from the progressive, public education system we need. 

As an example of the contradictions between cultural realities and social perceptions, we intentionally began this commentary with the words of country music legend Willie Nelson. Willie’s lyrics are of inclusiveness and of hope. Country music, along with much of rural America, has also been falsely stereotyped, but that’s another commentary for another day. In the same fashion, we end this commentary with the words of a rising country star, Sturgill Simpson.

Don’t call it a sign of the times, when it’s always been this way
Voices behind curtains, forked tongues that have no name
They plot their wicked schemes, setting fate for all mankind
With evil that can fill God’s pretty skies with clouds that burn and blind

Country folks aren’t dumb. Country folks aren’t racist or xenophobic or misogynistic. Country folks are…well...folks. And folks are diverse and interesting and, for the most part, well intentioned. To build on the words of Sturgill Simpson, it is time, as the Academy, to stop excluding and stereotyping country folks. It is time to stand up to the voices behind curtains that vilify the South, the Rust Belt, and all of us with a twang, a drawl, or dirt driveway. Bigotry doesn’t discriminate, and it is our job to fight bigotry. If we are willing to look out the window, we will discover that a lot of rural America is ready to fight the same fight.