Star InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar Inactive
 
Main Street Ingalls, Kansas

The community is composed of people in a certain area, but the community may be dead or it may be alive. The _life_ of the community is determined by the degree to which its people are able to act together for the best promotion of their common welfare. This ability to act together will obviously depend upon the extent to which the people have common aims and purposes. If the people of a community form distinct groups with diverse ideals and purposes, it will be much more difficult to secure that sympathy, tolerance, and understanding which are necessary for united action, than if they are more alike. Yet it is just such diversity of interests of different elements in the community which gives rise to community problems and which brings about an appreciation of the need of developing community life.

 

It is necessary, therefore, to have some appreciation of how the characteristics of its population influence community life.

In the first place, a community of people of different nationalities or races, or sometimes even of people from different states, find it much more difficult to secure a common loyalty than if they were of one stock. It is, of course, quite true that many an old community of a single stock is divided by family, religious or political feuds; yet usually there is more solidarity between people of common traditions and culture. The largest problem in the so-called "Americanization" of foreigners in rural communities is to get the natives to understand and appreciate the newcomers and to realize that the future of the community depends upon mutual respect and good will. Had we a little more of an historical perspective, we would remember that all of our ancestors were "foreigners" but a few generations back. In almost every part of the United States are communities in which alien groups form one of the chief obstacles to a better community life. Throughout the South, the most fundamental problem is that of a better understanding between the two races, and until some means of amicable adjustment is attempted, there is little prospect for the development of community life. In some of our best agricultural sections there have been successive waves of immigration of different nationalities. Thus in Dane County, Wisconsin, of which Madison--the state capital--is the county seat, Dr. J. H. Kolb[8] describes communities in which Germans, Norwegians, and Swiss have largely supplanted the original settlers from New England. In an interesting study of Americanization in a community in the Connecticut Valley of Massachusetts, John Daniels[9] has described how the French Canadians and Irish and then the Poles have taken up the land, and how good feeling between them and the native Yankees was gradually established. On the other hand, a nearby community in southern New York comes to mind, in which there is a colony of Bohemians, and another of Finns, which have been fairly successful in building up hill farms deserted by the descendants of the original settlers, and yet the community as a whole has done little toward making these people feel that they are a part of its life, although their industry is one of its largest economic assets. "America is the home of the free" and most of our people do desire a real democracy, but we seem to have assumed that it will develop spontaneously, and we have not appreciated that good will and common understanding require some means of acquaintance and exchange of ideas, and that the interests and desires of all the people in a community, young and old, must receive recognition. Unless we can establish democracy in our own local community, how can we expect it in the state or nation?

A second factor in community life is the age of its people. How often do you find a community composed chiefly of elderly people which is progressive? In the more progressive communities are not the middle-aged and young married people in control? The younger people desire better advantages for themselves and particularly for their children, and so they stand for better schools, better churches, and better facilities for all phases of community life. It is largely for this reason, it seems to me, that older communities seem to have cycles of relative decline and progress, according to the proportion of older and younger people. It is to be hoped that in future generations the ability to "keep young" may become more common; indeed, this is one of the chief objectives of modern education.

The density of population is also a determining factor with regard to many phases of community life, for it is obviously much easier to carry on many community activities where the people live fairly close together and not very far from the community center, than where the country is but sparsely settled. Even with automobiles and telephones, the distance between homes will have a large influence in determining the nature of community activities. One of the most difficult of our rural problems is how to bring to the people in sparsely settled regions the advantages which they rightly crave. It will be physically and economically impossible for them to have as good opportunities as sections which are more densely settled, but ways must be found whereby a larger degree of equality of opportunity is available to more thinly inhabited communities.

Changes in population immediately affect community needs. Where immigration is increasing rapidly, institutions such as schools, churches, and stores are often inadequate, and there is every incentive toward the development of community spirit and united effort to meet the common needs. On the other hand, in the older sections decreasing populations make it impossible to maintain as many institutions as formerly. Many an eastern community has inherited two or three churches, which were once well filled, but which now merely serve to divide the community as none of them are able to operate successfully, though it is obvious that unless the people are more loyal to their common needs than to their differences that the community will be unable to survive.

In relatively new communities, and often for several generations, the influence of the original settlement of the community may have a strong effect on its life. Thus where a new section is settled by acquaintances from an older community, by relatives, or those of one church, there is a bond between them from the beginning, but where land is settled by homesteaders from different sections, the process of establishing common ideals and purposes is a gradual one. Many a community in the middle west still bears the stamp of its original settlers. About in the center of West Virginia is the little community of French Creek which was settled by a few New England families a little over a hundred years ago. A recent study[10] of this community shows that it has had a powerful influence in the educational life of the whole state, and that its progressive spirit is largely traceable to "an ancestry of energetic people with high ideals which have been passed on by each generation." On the other hand, in many cases this influence is soon lost, due to some radical change in local conditions and the influx of new elements.

Its history plays an exceedingly large role in advancing or retarding community development. History and tradition are the memory of the community; they bring to mind its past experiences. Common ancestors and common participation in important events in the past give a sense of identity and heighten community consciousness. Pride in the history of the community is like pride in a good family, and is a strong factor in maintaining the standards of its people. Of course the past may be one of which no one is proud and which they may prefer to forget, but this is a spur to new endeavor as it is to a family to attain a new status.

Community life is likely to be at a low ebb where there is but little knowledge of, or interest in, the history of its past. I was recently impressed with this in visiting a small inland community, which was not without many events of interest in its earlier development. I failed, however, to find any connected records of the community's past or any of its people who know much of its history. So far as I could learn there had been few celebrations or community activities for many years and there was a general feeling that the community had been on the down grade and needed redirection. It seemed to me that one of the things which might arouse community loyalty in this instance would be for its people to clean up some of the old neighborhood cemeteries where many of the early pioneers lie buried, and which are now grown up and unkept.

Then I think of another community where every few years on important anniversary events the history of an organization or of the community as a whole is related and often published in the local press. Its past has no more striking events than that of the locality last mentioned, but these people have pride in their community and their loyalty is renewed on these anniversary occasions.

Miss Emily F. Hoag[11] has recently given a good picture of how the history of their community has been made to live in the hearts of the people of Belleville, New York, through their loyalty to the old Union Academy, and she has given a fine example of how a community may be brought to a realization of the contribution which it has made to the life of the state and nation.

Only by a knowledge of the community's history can the nature and origin of the attitudes of its people be understood. A generation or two ago, perchance, there was a quarrel between two families which was carried into the school meeting, and to this day two factions have persisted. The attitudes of the people in many a progressive town may be directly traced to the influence of some outstanding leaders--a teacher, minister, or doctor, perhaps--long since gone to their reward. A village fire, the coming of a railroad or its deflection to a nearby town, a bank failure, a prohibition crusade, the establishment of a library are but a few examples of events which form crises in the life of every community and which have a far-reaching and subtle effect in molding its character.

The cultivation of a knowledge of its own history is, therefore, one of the first duties of a community which seeks to understand itself so that it may better direct its life. Every community should maintain a record of its history, and have some means of preserving important historical material. The New York legislature has recently passed an act authorizing any township or village board to appoint a local historian, without salary, and to furnish safe storage for historical records. One of the most progressive rural communities in the country is the Quaker settlement at Sandy Spring, Maryland,[12] whose first historian was appointed in 1863 and whose historian reads the record of the year at each annual meeting. These "Annals" form a most intimate account of the community's progress. The custom of some rural newspapers of publishing local history of the past year on New Year's Day serves much the same purpose.

One of the best means of encouraging historical appreciation, and one which is very generally neglected, is the teaching of local history in the schools. Educators have learned that it is more pedagogical to commence instruction in geography with the local environment of the child, which it can know and understand, than to begin--as formerly--with the nebular hypothesis; but they are only commencing to appreciate that the same principle applies to the teaching of history. Is it not true that most children can glibly recite dates and events in the history of their own and foreign countries, of whose significance they have only a vague appreciation, but who never secure any real historical point of view or an appreciation of the importance of history because it has not been made concrete and intimate, as must be the case in considering local events? If national history is taught to develop patriotism, why should not local history be taught to inspire civic loyalty? Such a study of the efforts and sacrifices of former citizens would bring a new sense of obligation to be worthy of the heritage they have bequeathed, and would gradually establish an attitude of loyalty to the community which would be considered as essential to respectability as devotion to one's country. Indeed, how can one be truly loyal to a great country which is mostly unknown to him if he is not loyal to the people with whom he lives day by day in his home community?

One of the best means of reviving interest in the community's past is through the production of an historical pageant, which is discussed on page 161; for as the people act together the events of the past, they gain a new realization of what they owe to the life of the community in bygone days, and come to appreciate that men come and men go but the community continues and perpetuates their influence for better or for worse.

Socrates' injunction to "know thyself" is the epitome of wisdom for the community as it is for the individual. The first step in this process of self-acquaintance is to secure an accurate knowledge of the kinds of people which compose the community, and how its past is influencing its present.

Footnotes:

[8] "Rural Primary Groups," a study of agricultural neighborhoods. Research Bulletin 51, Agr. Exp. Station of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1921.

[9] "America via the Neighborhood," p. 419, D. Appleton & Co., 1920.

[10] A. J. Dadisman, "French Creek as a Rural Community," Bulletin 176, Agricultural Experiment Station, West Virginia University, June, 1921.

[11] "The National Influence of a Single Farm Community," Bulletin 984, United States Department of Agriculture, Dec., 1921.

[12] See "A Rural Survey of Maryland," Dept. of Church and Country Life, Board of Home Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the U. S. A., 1912; reprinted in part in N. L. Sims' "The Rural Community," p. 227, New York, Scribners, 1920.