The Rural Enlightenment in Bledsoe County, TN

If there ever was a twentieth-first century version of the “rural Enlightenment” it might be found in Bledsoe County, Tennessee. I just finished my three day visit with 30 or so American history teachers in rural Appalachia. Allow me to make a few reflections on my trip:

1). These teachers are eager–very eager–for American history content. They want to be better teachers and learn what my friend and colleague Anthony Napoli calls “the historical habits of the mind.” I hope we were able to help them in some small way this week. As I mentioned before, the Bledsoe County School district received a one million dollar “Teaching American History Grant” from the U.S. Department of Education and have partnered with the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in New York. (I was working for Gilder Lehrman).

2). The hospitality we received in Bledsoe County was amazing. I joked this morning with the teachers how I think I waved to more people on the highway this week than I have in the last ten years. I also ate my share of Moon Pies, a Tennessee delicacy (I learned that I was supposed to eat the Moon Pies along with a can of RC Cola). Janis and her staff were wonderful hosts (and they even gave me two boxes of Moon Pies to take home with me!). I also made many new friends–Janis, Jim and Christie, Brandon, Kelly, Hank, Candace, Jessica, and Debbie come immediately to mind, but I know I am leaving many out.

3). On Wednesday afternoon I got a chance to visit the site of the Scopes Monkey Trial (1925) in nearby Dayton. I toured the museum, sat in the courtroom where the event took place, and visited Bryan College. I just missed Dayton’s yearly re-enactment of the event.

4). This group loves Philip Vickers Fithian. We had a lot of fun joking together about Philip the “ladies man,” his relationship with Betsy, and his desire to stay connected with home. Many connected very deeply with Fithian’s story. The room was filled with first generation college students struggling to reconcile their lives as members of Bledsoe County’s educated class with their agriculture and working class roots. One teacher said to me: “As I read The Way of Improvement Leads Home I thought, ‘Dr. Fea seems to be writing this to me.'” Many passed the book along to friends and relatives. I could have not been more flattered and pleased.

Overall, I am glad I spent the last three days in rural Tennessee. As for these teachers, they will spend the next three years cultivating their rural Enlightenment. I wish them well.