Country Lifers and the Meaning of Community: Parsing Community in the Text of the Report of Theodore Roosevelt’s 1908 Commission on Country Life
In August 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt charged the Commission on Country Life with investigating the deficiencies of contemporary rural living, as well as potential remedies for such deficiencies. Roosevelt believed that upon the farmer rested the heavy responsibility for “feeding a world which is never more than a year away from starvation.” After an inquiry lasting five months and involving a prodigious effort to gather data through questionnaires, public meetings, and solicited correspondence, the Report of the Country Life Commission was submitted to the president on January 23, 1909. The burden on the farmer, the commission found, was not being met with commensurate earnings or adequate “desirability, comfort and standing of the farmer’s life.”
One of the keys to a robust democracy is the presence of strong communities made up of individuals and organizations that have the capacity to work together to solve their problems. Practices and policies of the government and of higher education can serve to strengthen this capacity or they can inhibit it. The Kettering Foundation has an interest in the historical trends that have affected the opportunities for communities to build democratic capacity and the role of institutions in that effort.
In this Kettering Foundation working paper, Edith Ziegler conducts a significant analysis and interpretation of the meaning of community from the era of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency. She examines the roles of both government and higher education in strengthening rural communities, which, from Roosevelt’s perspective, were considered necessary to feed the world. Her view of this history is not romanticized; Ziegler clearly casts the sense of inequity that was present in this era. However, her analysis reveals that rural communities were considered the backbone of a strong nation. Thus it became an important mission of government and of higher education to strengthen rural communities, specifically, and to ensure that the farmer was an integral part of the networks that formed them. She provides useful descriptions and definitions of community that are relevant today.
Ziegler is an adjunct lecturer at the University of New England in Armidale, NSW, Australia. She is also the author of Schools in the Landscape: Localism, Cultural Tradition and the Development of Alabama’s Public Education System, 1865-1915 (University of Alabama Press, 2010).