Rural sociologists define cultural capital in terms of the values and symbols reflected in the artifacts used by a particular community. (Cornelia Butler Flora &
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Jan L. Flora, Rural Communities: Legacy and Change, Boulder: Westview Press, 25.) Cultural capital is the legacy that enables individuals to “know who they are” and how to make their way in life. Families and the communities in which they live pass on to their children the tools they perceive to be needed for their children’s survival and well-being, whether in the form of land or education or other resources. For example, my daughter, with an inter-disciplinary liberal arts degree, began temping for a bank after graduation and is now a valued client manager, due in part to the work ethic she inherited from this community through me.
By any measure, this community is rich in cultural capital. I see it in the artifacts at the Heritage Hall Museum and Archives where I work part-time, representing almost a century and a half of life since European pioneers first began settling here. We have been creative in devising ways of making a rich life on what was once a largely empty prairie. (It is easy to forget that American Indians have lived here for centuries and have their own rich cultural capital accrued from living on this land.) This is the legacy, the cultural capital, we are passing on to our children through our homes, churches and schools.
A large part of our cultural capital consists of knowing who we are and where we have come from. This derives in part from the knowledge of our ethnic heritage. Freeman and the rural community around it were settled mostly by various groups of Germans from Russia. These were German farmers who had been invited to Russia by the German Czarina Catherine the Great in the 18th century, and who already had a long history and experience with creating agrarian communities when they came to this country in the late 19th century. While an ethnic heritage can easily become a kind of exclusionary idol that wrongly discriminates against “outsiders,” it is also an indispensable form of cultural capital that enables us and succeeding generations make a sustainable rural community in this place. Heritage Hall Museum and Archives documents and preserves this cultural heritage, and Freeman celebrates it each spring at Schmeckfest.
It is also possible to squander our cultural capital as a community. Or perhaps more accurately, it is easy to choose forms of cultural capital from the dominant culture that destroy a rural community like ours. Recent generations have chosen to adopt the cultural capital of commodity agriculture from the dominant culture. Now we find that there isn’t enough land and that it’s too costly to sustain such farms. It has not been uncommon
for me to hear successful farmers discourage their children from staying in the community with comments like, “There’s no future here for you!” While the cultural capital reflected in such advice may serve their children well in terms of individual success, it almost certainly guarantees the continued decline of rural communities like ours.
We need to choose forms of cultural capital that encourage our children to remain in this rural community. Using the cultural capital we have inherited from the history of this rural community, we need to envision ways of living that can be supported by our specific place. The current generation of farmers, aging as many of them are, will not be the last, despite the fatalism often reflected in their comments to their children. We have a much richer cultural capital from which to draw. There is a future for an agrarian community like ours!
S. Roy Kauman