Country Life Commission (1908)
President Teddy Roosevelt appointed a commission to conduct a comprehensive survey of the rural population to determine what can be done to improve the conditions of rural life. Liberty Hyde Bailey, Dean of Agriculture at Cornell, chaired the Commission. Over 550,000 people were surveyed and hearings were held at 30 locations. The Commission found that schools in rural areas were deplorable, rural people were socially isolated, roads were inadequate, communication was poor, farm credit needed to be improved, farm cooperatives were needed and the extension service was needed. They made a number of suggestions as to how to solve these problems.
The following came from a web document titled "Ag Development and U.S. History" for Rural Sociology 108 taught at Western Kentucky University by Dr. David Coffey.
"Roosevelt, long concerned with natural resource issues and public lands policy, established the Country Life Commission for a number of reasons, not the least of which being his fear that further rural depopulation would create vulnerabilities within the American food system. Believing that agriculture was the basis of all economic prosperity, Roosevelt wanted to upgrade rural institutional life and create an efficient food production system. In this way rural populations would be stabilized, the quality of rural life would be improved, and agriculture would assume its rightful place as the foundation for urban and industrial expansion.
Agriculture could conform to the emerging pattern of modern life. In nearly every state country life commissions were formed on the local level to evaluate rural problems. While the recommendations of the Country Life Commission failed to garner very much support from Congress and President William Howard Taft, who had succeed Roosevelt at the time of the issuance of the Commission's final report, the findings were critical to the future of rural policy.
Generally speaking, the Commission and the movement it spawned saw agriculture in an extremely favorable light. As typical with rural fundamentalism, the Country Lifers ascribed to rural people an honesty, patriotism, simplicity and a moral and emotional tone far superior to that of urbanites. As Bailey wrote echoing the sentiments of Thomas Jefferson, farmers were the "fundamental fact of democracy. "But many problems existed with the fabric of rural living which demanded attention. The litany of rural problems and concerns emphasized the drudgery of farm life, the lack of culture and amenities, the poverty and ineffectiveness of country institutional life, and the failure of government policy.
Among those institutions singled out for particular criticism and concern was the rural school. The failure of the rural school was often seen as the impetus for the depopulation of rural areas. The principle charge leveled against the schools was a perceived urban bias in the curriculum, the texts employed, and teaching approaches. Teachers were accused of steering the brightest youth to the cities rather than into farming. This "brain drain" seriously eroded the very foundations of rural life, it was argued. Superintendents of rural school systems hired poorly trained teachers, seldom placed enough emphasis upon continuing professional development, frequently failed to enforce laws related to attendance, and lacked a desire to supervise and evaluate performance. All too often supervision was carried out by local farmers and not be professional educators, a condition which appalled the Country Lifers who wished to see a greater level of "professionalism" in all areas of rural living, including the schools. While the quality of professional leadership and teaching came under attack, so too did the very size and scale of the typical country school. It was simply too small, too independent, and too informal to be effective. To the Country Life reformers the one-room schoolhouse was the very symbol of rural inefficiency and institutional poverty. The answer to these and other related problems was school consolidation, the "best solution to the country school problem yet devised," according to Mabel Carney, one of the leaders of the movement.15 While consolidation of schools was advocated several times prior to the Country Life movement, this reform became one of its hallmarks.
The consolidated school would become the focus of a region's social and cultural life. Grading, planning, curriculum standardization, and the professionalization of teaching and supervision were all supposed advantages of the consolidated school system. Such an approach would almost immediately lead to an improvement in educational attainment and would permit instruction in scientific agriculture, domestic science, and industrial arts, all deemed essential to a modern rural education. Schools would instruct children "to do in a perfect way, the things their fathers had not learned."6 Another recommendation of the Country Life Commission Report, Rural Free Delivery (RFD,) began and communication between all areas of our country was finally accomplished."
In 1912 Teddy Roosevelt ran for the presidency on the Progressive Party platform. Following is the Party's plank on Country Life (it reflects the findings of the Country Life Commission). Roosevelt was not successful. William Howard Taft won the election.
"The development and prosperity of country life as important to the people who live in the cities as they are to the farmers. Increase of prosperity on the farm will favorably affect the cost of living and promote the interests of all who dwell in the country, and all who depend upon its products for clothing, shelter and food.
We pledge out party to foster the development of agricultural credit and co-operation, the teaching of agriculture in schools, agricultural college extension, the use of mechanical power on the farm, and to re-establish the Country Life Commission, thus directly promoting the welfare of the farmers, and bringing the benefits of better farming, better business and better living within their reach."