Rural Narratives 2: Of Education and Wisdom
Tom was a down-to-earth, “good ole boy” who grew up on a farm in central California. We don’t think about California as a rural state, but even today 56% of its land area remains rural.
Like many of us, Tom moved to the city to find work. When I met him, he was night supervisor at an industrial plant. At the time, I worked the loading docks. I was 20 years old.
Tom was a genius, but not in the conventional sense. He was functionally illiterate, could barely read, and wrote at a second-grade level. But he had a gift for machinery, and could make any piece of equipment run.
This was an important skill at the plant, which used a number of types of complex machinery from forklifts and yard goats to packaging and painting equipment. The most challenging was an acetylene production and bottling system, which took up about 25% of the plant and was the only facility like it in all of southern California. Acetylene is a relatively unstable gas used for welding, and the process of producing it and dissolving it into acetone in cylinders is not at all simple. The system broke down a lot. Tom, the night shift supervisor, could keep it running better than the plant’s engineer.
But Tom was not well liked by the management. The corporate culture thrived on reporting, and Tom, who couldn’t write, was unable to provide the copious and lengthy reports required. This was the other reason he was moved to night shift: he was an embarrassment to a culture of college-educated management. But they needed him. The plant wouldn’t run through the night without him. They knew this because the weeks Tom took for vacation each year were nightmares for management– and for those of us who worked at night.
No one could make that plant run like Tom could. Yet he was the least-respected member of management. In a culture that valued correspondence, Tom’s gift for machinery was essential but not respected. Most managers considered him stupid. He was uneducated, but he was far from stupid. If you wanted life advice, his was better than any of his college-educated superiors.
I can tell Tom’s story because he’s gone now, and so is the company we worked for. I tell it because it illustrates one of the fundamental issues of the polarization in our nation. But let me illustrate it from the other side.
Someone I know well, a self-described liberal, recently told me, “There’s no excuse for whining about low paying jobs. Anyone can get a college degree and get a better job if they just put their mind to it.” Education, she claimed, was the answer to the economic woes of the working class.
There is some truth to this. Many are capable of educating themselves and getting better jobs. But as a blanket statement, this just isn’t true. First of all, it defies the laws of economics. If everyone had a college degree, wages for skilled jobs would go down and required qualifications for advancement would go up. That’s the law of supply and demand. Just look at India, where you need a college degree to become a clerk!
But let’s return to Tom, who never learned to read and write functionally. He’s not alone. Some reports claim that 44 million American adults cannot read a simple story, and 50% cannot read a book written at an 8th grade level. This is not exclusively a rural-urban issue, but it’s related. In a rural economy, what matters is getting the job done. Whether that’s construction or farming, driving truck or repairing equipment, skills are of much more value than literacy. And that’s been true for hundreds of years. It is not just a statistic, it is a cultural reality.
I remember when the Foxfire books debuted in the 1970s. It was as if people suddenly realized that there was wisdom in the Appalachians. The books became bestsellers. The life (and generational) experience of mountain people spoke to “the rest of us.” Perhaps there was an element of romanticism in this embrace. Or perhaps we realized that we had forgotten to value wisdom from other times and places.
Today, those same people are often considered uneducated and unworthy of making their own decisions. It seems we cannot imagine any reality other than our own. We expect everyone to agree with us–and this is true across the political spectrum– as if everyone has had the same experience and faces the same realities.
How can someone who struggles to raise thousands of dollars for a tiny apartment in an urban community relate to someone else whose livelihood depends on maintaining acreage on which to farm, and vice versa? How can someone whose livelihood relies on a corporation providing cheap goods relate to a small producer who needs a better price to survive, and vice versa? And how can an educated urbanite relate to a rural person whose family never valued education because it didn’t put food on the table? (Remember my mention of the deer poacher in my last post? Where there are no skilled jobs, education isn’t a priority.)
But, conversely, without farmers and truck drivers what will you eat? And without urban economies, who would employ farmers and truck drivers?
Like Tom and the company he worked for, we need each other. Like Tom and the company, we have different values and experiences. Do we vilify each other, or do we try to understand where the other is coming from?
The answer has gotten more difficult since the 1980s when I worked with Tom. No longer do people from diverse backgrounds sit around and chat. Instead, we trade memes on social media. No longer do we listen to each others’ stories. Instead, we trade sound bites.
It’s a lot like giving just the punchline of a joke. “So he says, ‘Bring me my brown pants.'” How do you know if it’s funny without the back story?
I worked with Tom for a decade. I listened to his stories, and talked with him about life. He died some 30 years ago. I’m sure his fellow managers, wherever they are, have long forgotten him. But his memory lives on in me because I knew him as a wise man.