“The United States was born in the country and moved to the city.” Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform
Some years ago in a class on Environmental Issues and Social Justice, I assigned Jane Jacobs’ “Cities First – Rural Development Later” a chapter from her book, The Economy of Cities. In a nutshell, Jacobs argues that cities, which grew as trading places, not only preceded agricultural communities, but actually made them possible. She makes an imaginative, logical and provocative argument, which flies in the face of much conventional thinking about the primacy of agriculture, the creation of surplus food, and the formation of cities. Just as importantly, it raises questions about America’s long-ingrained myth of rural superiority, in which virtuous yeoman farmers form both the moral and economic backbone of the nation, threatened by parasitical cities filled with dangerous values and alien peoples. It’s a myth that still resonates – the dystopian wasteland of urban violence, the utopian virtues of the forgotten hinterland drove much of the last election – even as the yeoman farmer has morphed into the unemployed factory worker.
A young student, who had grown up on a multi-generational family farm in central Maine, reacted to the assigned reading with barely controlled anger. “This is not true,” she said, and she would not accept it. When I asked her why, she said it contradicted everything she had been brought up to believe. For her, this was not an intellectual exercise. It was personal, and it had shaken her worldview.
Our exchange presented a wonderful teaching moment for both of us, a chance, among other things, to encounter the power of ideas. But it’s a reminder also of the danger of allowing our own mythologies to go unchallenged to the point where they become, not just opposing points of view but alternate realities – a danger much in evidence recently, from the protests at Middlebury College to Donald Trump’s chillingly infantile tweets.