Sometimes my personal and research worlds collide. Thursday night I was thinking about a good, recent article on the continued suckage of rural broadband and starting to write about it. My readers know that this is a very immediate problem for my work and family.
At the same time I was getting feedback on my conference keynote from Thursday morning. In this speech I dwelled on the impact of economic inequality on American culture and education. Some people responded that this was interesting, but didn’t impact them, because they were shielded by very wealthy institutions. Others agreed, yet appreciated the talk, as it connected them with the present content (several used the word “reality”). Still others celebrated the talk, really wanting me to talk more about economic class – but they only approached me in private, not public.
Meanwhile, I was taking notes in another tab about another grim idea that’s been occupying my brain in dark hours. The idea is that America is developing a caste system, within which education plays a powerful and constitutive role. These three came together in a kind of brainstorm.
Robert Putnam described recent socioeconomic developments as building up into something like a caste system. Eric Schmidt (a Google leader, for a while the Google leader) wrote about the possibility of “a digital caste system”. The last Obama administration education secretary used this language to describe American higher education:
When it comes to student access, we need to acknowledge the ways in which we are becoming a caste system of colleges and universities – in which wealthier high school students get personalized college counseling, rigorous coursework like Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, and disproportionate admittance to the nation’s top universities, while, all too often, poorer students get shortchanged on these things. (emphases added)
…That is an embarrassment. It is a death sentence for our historic promise of social mobility.
Some of that caste metaphor insight appears as well in several of our book club readings, which have emphasized a deepening of class differences in/with/through education, like Sara Goldrick-Rab’s Paying the Price, Madeline Ashby’s Company Town, Ernst Cline’s Ready Player One, Paulo Bacigalupi’s, The Water Knife, and Robert Putnam’s aforementioned Our Kids. Other recent books I’ve been reading contribute to this theme as well, like Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton’s Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, Scott Gelber’s The University and the People, and Christopher Newfield’s recent Johns Hopkins books, Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class and The Great Mistake. The Big Sort looms large on my Kindle… looking back on this paragraph, I see a very recent and growing bibliography about class differences widening into a new social order.
Caste has also come up on the Future Trends Forum. Sara Goldrick-Rab spoke to it in March:
Or as one person put it more darkly on Twitter:
So why are some of us thinking of caste as a metaphor to illuminate the present day? Economic inequality, while rising, isn’t automatically caste, obviously. Moreover, caste requires a complex system of hereditary roles, internalized position, religious support, clearly understood hierarchy, controls over romance and reproduction, policing, and maybe race/ethnicity. America doesn’t have any of these, do we?
…and yet we could be heading in that direction right now, in the United States. Not perfectly, no, but we’re very creative people. Americans are working on realizing many of the above features, starting with reducing intergenerational economic mobility – you might remember this old idea under the hoary nickname “The American Dream.” Controls over romance and reproduction? We’re already seeing economic forms of assortative mating settling in. Policing daily life by class? The velvet rope economy brings caste out quite clearly, from medical care to air travel and resorts.
But using caste as a metaphor quickly brings to mind many differences between the reference and the thing itself. America isn’t becoming a copy of India or Edo Japan, of course. Our emerging caste model isn’t openly acknowledged and celebrated (yet). We don’t have a religious structure backing it (setting aside the prosperity gospel for now), although instead of religion we might now have a stabilizing mix of media and neoliberalism. The same goes for internalizing one’s caste position, a lack of explicit social norms, but a set of quietly emerging ones. (Maybe we’ll generate a new term to replace “caste” in order to flag its 21st-century American specificity. Perhaps “iCaste,” or “American Dream 2.0.”)
In short caste here is a conceptual tool, not a literal comparison. It’s one I’d like to use to derive some visions of possible cultural evolution. Consider it a futuring tool or prompt.
So I’ll explore this futures idea over a series of posts. I’ll come back to the general idea, and dive into possible new castes.
Today’s caste: rural folk.
Hypothesis: America’s rural population is emerging as a distinct identity, restricted to certain roles.
It’s clear that this population is distinct from the urban and suburban demographic. City versus country is as old as cities, after all, but things are sharpening now. Country folk are increasingly older and fewer in number than people in cities, who are burgeoning. Rural people tend to be more politically conservative than their urban counterparts.
The countryside is also poorer, generally speaking, than the rest of America. The urban Rust Belt is paralleled by a relatively immiserated world of rural counties where capital doesn’t accrue as rapidly, where jobs pay less and money usually flows out, rather than in. The urban sphere is growing, economically, while the rural zone stagnates at best.
Rural infrastructure helps keep that population in its low (and lowering) place. Cyberinfrastructure is desperately lacking, with broadband far scarcer than it is in cities and suburbs. This has enormous impact, blocking access to a growing swath of the digital world. Rural people have less opportunity to learn online, make stories and share them through YouTube, start businesses, shop, be entertained, research politicians – i.e., a very large part of 21st century life.
(On Facebook one friend recollected that the rural Dakotas actually have good connectivity… thanks to convict labor in the 1990s. I’ll get into prisoners as caste later on.)
More: according to the US Census, “People who live in rural areas are more likely to own their own homes, live in their state of birth and have served in the military than their urban counterparts”.
One way a caste system survives is by inter-caste competition and disdain. Despite centuries of American culture valorizing bucolic settings, a significant chunk of today’s culture now entertains some serious hatred for that world. Don’t underestimate the wealth of sneering contained in the popular slur “flyover country.” Here’s another example of that spite, handily aggregated by an author looking at responses to Case and Deaton:
Bunch of deplorables, and if they die quicker than the rest of us that just means the country will be better off in the long run…
It’s bad news they are dying off if you happen to love one of them or are one of them. But, it’s the welcome news of hope that without that demographic dwindling and eventually gone, our chances of another Trump are significantly less.
Now that’s good news…
If anything, these poor whites will be hired to dig grave pits and assemble their own coffins….
They have every know advantage in America; culturally, environmentally, educationally, etc. There is absolutely no reason that they should be in such despair. They should pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
That wrath is partly ideological, with progressive Democrats despising Trump supporters. But it also reflects a kind of caste supporting tactic, as people living in cities and suburbs can mock and disdain those inhabiting the countryside and in so doing boost their own status. “We’re smarter and more progressive. We don’t deserve to die of despair, unlike those
Naturally rural folk return the favor. They inhabit the heartland, after all.
Ideology: as anyone who’s lived in both country and city knows, and as a recent Washington Post survey shows, political and cultural attitudes differ.
Rural residents are nearly three times as likely (42 percent) as people in cities (16 percent) to say that immigrants are a burden on the country….
When asked which is more common — that government help tends to go to irresponsible people who do not deserve it or that it doesn’t reach people in need — rural Americans are more likely than others to say they think people are abusing the system. And across all areas, those who believe irresponsible people get undeserved government benefits are more likely than others to think that racial minorities receive unfair privileges.
All right, so we have a sense that the countryside is increasingly distinct from the city and suburbs. Let’s look at it from another angle. What is the function of the rural caste in the overall system that is America?
The ancient and still important role is growing food. This is where factory farms and CSAs alike dwell. Automation increasingly appears in the ag sector, but still occurs in the countryside. (Now, a special subsector of the rural caste is the elite food grower. Fans of Michael Pollan and slow food can cultivate speciality farms which supply not major grocery chains but farmer’s markets.)
The countryside also provides transportation services for those traveling by means other than air. A rural population staffs restaurants, gas stations, garages, hotels, and tourist spots. Entire towns exist to support and feed off of interstates.
Rural folks also feed the military in greater numbers that their urban and city counterparts.
Beyond those literal functions, the countryside plays a powerful symbolic function. People living in small towns or in isolated settings remind the rest of the nation of a key part of our collective identity. It is distanced and unrealistic, but we maintain some remnant of respect, alongside our disdain. We don’t talk about the pioneers in positive terms any longer (or at all, really), yet we can admire what it takes to live off the grid, or at any rate far from the nearest Starbuck’s. For the rest of America rural folk serve the important function of bucolic historical reenactment.
Let’s take this rural caste model into the future. Population trends suggest the number of inhabitants will plateau or shrink. If cities remain the nation’s engines of economic growth, the countryside will fall even further behind, which might increase the appeal of populisms or dangerous drugs to the isolated inhabitants . Automation might speed this process by removing jobs. Trump-era political polarization could wide the city versus country political divide. The caste, in other words, could harden.
I’m not sure what this means for education. Rural colleges and universities could lose student numbers and even merge or close as learners prefer to attend urban and suburban campuses. Bad broadband could stymie options for rural online learning. Perhaps the countryside will fall farther behind in academic attainment.
Are you seeing the rural caste emerge? Is my American caste future implausible? If it is plausible, which castes are you seeing surface? Do you have to cleanse yourself after reading this post? Let me know while I draft the next several posts in this series.
(thanks to Ceredwyn for helping develop many of these ideas; thanks to Rolin Moe for sharing the WSJ article; thanks to George Station and other Facebook friends for more discussion; thanks to Steven Greenlaw for the WaPo link)