At the dawn of the semester, with shopping period looming ahead of me, I sat on CourseTable, searching. I found a slew of enjoyable classes in literature, history and political theory, on identity and personhood. on theory and practice. Still, the process was frustrating. Out of over two thousand courses offered this year, not one focused on the experience that defines much of my identity and place at Yale. None of them focused on rural America.
Growing up in rural, northern Michigan, I never expected to go to Yale. I lived an educational experience foreign to many of my classmates — constantly fending for myself in classes, enrolling in college after middle school and spending hours in meetings with administrators for basic academic privileges. I think of my educational experience, flawed as it was, as a patchwork quilt I stitched myself, complete with childhood obsessions with the Titanic disaster and independent studies.
While I am grateful for these experiences, at Yale, I constantly reflect on the things I don’t know. My high school never offered physics. I don’t even know enough to take an introductory course here. But many of the other things I didn’t know when I arrived at Yale are those that I have been forced to learn: what a bodega is, the names of prominent D.C. prep schools, how to use a bus system and what “business casual” actually means. Someone recently told me that I “perform urbanity” at Yale. I asked that person, “Don’t we all?”
Yale, by virtue of its location and target demographic, is a school run by and for east coast urbanites. Those of us who do not meet those requirements are expected to conform, spending our breaks from school in New York and abandoning our country music playlists and camouflage garb at the door. But as my accent has faded into that of a WASPy elite, as I have learned to “perform urbanity” and as I have become a stranger in my hometown, I wonder what my classmates actually know about where I come from. Do they use terms like “flyover country” and “white trash?” Do they think we are all gun-toting, queer-hating hillbillies, our teeth rotting and Confederate flags blowing in the breeze? Do they blame us for feeling forgotten?
The urgency of these questions intensifies when we reflect on the futures of many of our classmates. I have acquaintances I wouldn’t be surprised to see become congressmen, top executives and lobbyists. If America’s future leaders know nothing about rural areas — which are home to approximately 50 million people, between 15 and 20 percent of the U.S. population — then how will they actually lead this country?
It is absolutely necessary for rurality to become a subject of our classes, from humanities to social sciences to public health. Rural areas have their own unique cultures and sets of challenges that cannot be subsumed into generalized conversations about poverty, education and healthcare. Rural areas are characterized by lack of access to resources that are available in urban areas. For instance, there are few psychiatrists in the northern three-quarters of my home state.
Similarly, rural areas desperately need access to affordable high-speed internet. Many communities don’t have their own emergency response, hospitals or firefighters. Getting to a school can be an hours-long affair. These aren’t issues that urban areas face, but they are issues which deserve Yale students’ attention.
Several Yale classes discuss urban areas in great detail; a quick search on CourseTable shows 20 classes featuring the word “city” offered this semester and another 22 that include the word “urban” in their names. The fact that one of the greatest universities in the world houses academics largely uninterested in rural issues illustrates a more insidious problem with the academic elite: many of them have never clambered down the ivory tower, traded their tweed for a pair of overalls and dove into the heartland.
It feels insulting for an entire class of people to call themselves experts in poverty without understanding rural poverty, education without understanding rural education and politics without understanding rural politics. It reeks of the same liberal elitism that has people tweeting that the coasts should form their own country, leaving Middle America in squander.
People at Yale think they do understand us. They read the columns in The New York Times blaming us for the Trump election. They picked up a copy of Hillbilly Elegy. They sigh when I tell my cliche things-were-hard-at-public-school story. But I wonder how much this understanding is couched in biases that are too easy, in blame without nuance and in perspective that chooses to see other people as two-dimensional. Rural grief and rage are real, and refusing to acknowledge that places like Yale cultivate that rage is intellectually lazy and emotionally negligent.
In order to combat this laziness and negligence, Yale requires a comprehensive effort to elevate rural voices. This effort ends with a space where our accents are loud, proud and present, and where the dominant culture doesn’t require me to know what Sidwell is. (It’s a D.C. prep school. I hate that I am writing this in a column.) Our effort ends with rural studies programs. It ends with rural affirmative action. But it starts with one class about rurality, just one.
And until we get that one, I’ll be in my suite playing Garth Brooks, drinking Vernor’s ginger ale and picturing myself in the sweet, sweet ecstasy of a Michigan summer — relishing, just for a moment, in what my classmates are missing.
MCKINSEY CROZIER is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Her column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .