“The idea of someone else doing for you will destroy you from the inside.”
“I arrive at the age of fifteen, at this period I had learned only in a moderate degree to read write and cipher having like most children neglected to improve the opportunities afforded me at the common schools. And not being able to appreciate the great advantages derived from education and an improved mind, however humble the capacity and having formed a very humble opinion of my own was without hope than an education united with my natural gifts would enable me to succeed respectfully in any professions and being proud of spirit could not break the idea…” — Abner Baker, Sr.’s Life Book
One of the themes I’ll be exploring in So Far Appalachia is how the Bakers (and to a larger extent Appalachians) viewed education as it pertained to the settling of the country. This is important because education is one of those variables within American life that is so ubiquitious that we forget about the mechanics of it. Education is, by and large, a public expectation, and yet very few people who aren’t involved in the business of educating children could tell you how it works.
(In fact, I consistently hear from people who tell me that “you can’t teach somebody to be a teacher,” which I find to be a very strange comment considering I spent 4 years learning the science of teaching. But I digress.)
This theme naturally emerged from the Baker’s story because for many generations, the Bakers were classically educated and as such they kept meticulous notes and journals about their activities, which has made this book easy to research. And countless generations have stories of both the men and the women getting educated, and then returning to the family homestead, where they were then expected to become part of the local community.
One very notable exception is Abner Baker, Sr., who would become the first Clerk of Clay County at its inception. He turned down the opportunity to get educated (his four brothers before him took up their father’s offer), and he spent the better part of his life trying to compensate for that. He consistently wrote that his lack of formal education placed him outside of conversations and situations. Even though his “natural” abilities (you can read that as: what he taught himself) got him quite far, he found the lack of formal education made his life much more difficult.
The feudists (as they are called) all recognized the value of education, and as public education in Kentucky collapsed around the Civil War, Clay County residents has more than 100 one-room schools in the area, usually set up on land donated by inviduals and familes. And in 1899, James A. Burns recruited 12 families in Clay County to submit a petition to the state to open the Oneida Institute, one of the first boarding schools in the area where local children could get a comprehensive and coordinated education.
The brief point to be made tonight is this: while the central government authority struggled to maintain its comprehensive schools, the individuals and families of Manchester – recognizing and borne out of formal education – set about trying to fix the situation as best they could. And the most-able families, such as the Bakers (for a time) sent their children away to colleges and universities for schooling because they recognized its importance.
Of course, these efforts didn’t necessarily succeed as well as centralized public schools, but it does give some insight into the culture of education, at least in Manchester, where local efforts largely kept the schools going for 50 years.
This mentality and culture is particulary important to understand as the country discusses the role of education, and the role of government in fixing (or meddling) our state primary and secondary schools. As one lady told me today: When you are a proud people and you have spent generations doing for yourself, the idea of someone else doing for you will destroy you from the inside.
And people need to consider this idea of “rugged individualism as a source of pride” when they attack small, rural areas over a perceived (or real) lack of educational services. When those attacks are levied, they are taken as an afront to those who have labored to keep these towns afloat even as they have disappeared off the American radar.