In today’s Wall Street Journal, I review Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What it Means for America by Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas:

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Bill Kauffman
Bill Kauffman was born on November 15 (also the birthday of Bobby Dandridge) in the otherwise forgettable year of 1959. He was an all-star Little League shortstop for the Lions Club Cubs but soon thereafter his talents eroded. After an idyllic childhood in his ancestral home of Batavia, New York, birthplace of Anti-Masonry, he was graduated from Batavia High School in 1977. He earned, more or less, a B.A. from the University of Rochester in 1981 and went therefrom to the staff of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the only dairy farmer in the U.S. Senate. Two and a half years later he left Moynihan’s staff a bohemian Main Street anarchist who loved the Beats, the New England transcendentalists, early 20th century local colorists (Sarah Orne Jewett his Maine gal), cowpunk music, and the crazy old America. Neil Diamond and Karen Carpenter, too, but don’t tell anyone. He bummed around out west for a while, sleeping in bus stations and writing derivative poetry in Salt Lake City flophouses (nah, he’s not a Mormon, just a BYU fan) before an ill-starred year in graduate school at the UR. He took a seminar with Christopher Lasch and thought on it. In the spring of 1985 he flew west to become an assistant editor with Reason magazine. He had great fun in Santa Barbara with that crew of congenial editors drinking far into the night at Eddie Van Cleeve’s Sportsman’s Lounge, but in ’86 he flew east to become the magazine’s Washington editor. Always homesick, Kauffman persuaded his lovely and talented wife Lucine, a Los Angelena, to move back to Batavia in 1988 in what he called a “one-year experiment”—the year to be measured, apparently, in Old Testament terms. They’re still there—or, more accurately, five miles north in Elba (apt name for an exile!), where Lucine is Town Supervisor. She may well be the highest-ranking Armenian-American elected official in the country, at least until the voters of California send Cher to the U.S. Senate. Take that, Turks! Lucine and Bill have a daughter, Gretel, 17, who writes and acts and plays piano and French horn. Their lab mutt, Victoria, whose tail graces the accompanying photo, is now departed, to their sorrow, but a cat, Duffy, darts in and out of the house when the mood strikes. Bill is the author of nine books: Every Man a King (Soho Press/1989), a novel, which was recently rescued from the remainder bin by a New York Sun article proclaiming it the best political satire of the last century (the Sun thereupon set); Country Towns of New York (McGraw-Hill/1994), a travel book about God’s country; America First! Its History, Culture and Politics (Prometheus/1995), a cultural history of isolationism which Benjamin Schwarz in the Atlantic called the best introduction to the American anti-imperialist tradition; With Good Intentions? Reflections on the Myth of Progress in America (Praeger/1998), his worst-seller, a sympathetic account of critics of highways, school consolidation, a standing army, and the Siren Progress; Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette: A Mostly Affectionate Account of a Small Town’s Fight to Survive (Henry Holt/2003; Picador ppb. 2004), a memoirish book about his hometown which won the 2003 national “Sense of Place” award from Writers & Books; Look Homeward, America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists (ISI/2006), which the American Library Association named one of the best books of 2006 and which won the Andrew Eiseman Writers Award; Ain’t My America: The Long Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle American Anti-Imperialism (Henry Holt/ Metropolitan/2008), which Barnes & Noble named one of the best books of 2008; Forgotten Founder: Drunken Prophet: The Life of Luther Martin (ISI/2008), a biography of a brilliant dipsomaniacal Anti-Federalist who warned us this was gonna happen; and Bye Bye, Miss American Empire (Chelsea Green/2010), a cheerful account of dissolution. Bill is a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal and a columnist for The American Conservative. He has written for numerous publications, including The American Scholar, the Los Angeles Times Book Review, The Nation, Chronicles, the Independent and The Spectator of London, Counterpunch, Orion, University Bookman, and Utne Reader. He is vice president of the Genesee County Baseball Club, which owns the Batavia Muckdogs of the New York-Penn Baseball League. Come summertime, he can be found in the 3rd base bleachers at Dwyer Stadium. He is also active in the officerless (of course) John Gardner Society. Bill is more handsome than the photo on this site would suggest. See books written by Bill Kauffman.


  1. Where have all the Iowans gone?

    Down Leviathan’s throat.

    On the way toward being ejected, in altered but not improved form, out Leviathan’s posterior end, to fertilize (yet more) “progress.”

  2. I agree that local small-town public schools do a lot to cut their own throats. But a lot of that throat-cutting is almost inextricable from the education process itself. You teach kids stuff, and who knows what they’ll do with it? Even if teachers (including myself and several folks on this blog) could come to accept and articulate the idea that the purpose of education isn’t to maximize opportunity and head for the big city, but rather to tend to one’s one community and place, you still have the question of which community it is to attend to. As I wrote before, in a world where school districts and curricula face hard choices driven by the demands of size and funding and fairness, some acts of consolidation–that is, some compromises between supporting the community by staying small and increasing individual choices by growing large–can sometimes make sense, or at least can make as much sense as any other option.

    In the end, as you say Bill, it’s a question of where people’s hearts are, more than anything else.

  3. Russell, I wrote an alternative history of school consolidation in my worst-seller, With Good Intentions? Wish I could figure a way to post that chapter on FPR. The rationale for killing small schools has changed over the years. Prewar, it was the progressivist faith in bigness: “The small district with its small school belongs to a social order which has long been obsolete.” Harry A. Little, School and Society, 1934. In the ’50s, it was the Cold War, as spelled out by the high priest of consolidation, James B. Conant, in The American High School Today (1959) and The Child, the Parent, and the State (1959). Today, it is economy, even though transportation costs effectively nullify the alleged savings of most consolidations. In any case, the dean of rural sociology, the late Thomas A. Lyson of Cornell, nailed it: “When a school goes in a rural community, it’s a death knell.”

  4. Bill, I don’t at all disagree with Lyson’s conclusion: the closing of a school in a rural community effective ends that community. But that doesn’t address the question of whether it is right, or fair, to maintain a school in a rural community when said community has already ended: because the factory closed, because the wheat fields were all bought out, or because the population has already shrunk beneath replacement levels. Tragically you can get to that point, sometimes.

  5. Yeah, but here’s another angle to the story. You don’t have to sit back and say, gee whiz, the community’s gone. Usually consolidation happens because a bunch of ideologues think it should happen, and they are always, always wrong. Communities have a way of sorting things out and surviving if there is even the slightest reason for them to survive. My home town has changed a couple of times, but the thing that didn’t have to happen was to consolidate school systems with our rival village and turn what was a perfectly good little school into an ugly middle-sized school that nobody feels any loyalty to even fifty years later. Schools, remember, are for teaching kids. Big consolidated schools are like big factories. They don’t teach anybody anything worth learning. Size matters, and in education big is bad. That goes for Little Bugger, Arkansas, as well as for Megatroplis, New Jersey.

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