Sowing clover
   Schools, communities, and social capital

February 2, 1968

In the darkness of the moon, in flying snow, in the dead of winter,
war spreading, families dying, the world in danger,
I walk the rocky hillside, sowing clover.

- Wendell Berry

I found this small jewel of a poem by Wendell Berry after I returned from Vietnam and enrolled at the University of Montana, leaving behind work on a degree in physics I had begun before the service to instead study literature, planning to teach in small, Montana towns. It served as a touchstone that had something to do with my desire at that moment in time to work in out of the way places, relatively untroubled by big events.

With only a date for a title, the poem invites contemplation about a particular moment in time. Anyone who remembers 1968 will suspect the poem is about trouble. During 1968 the Tet Offensive changed America’s attitude toward the Vietnam War; an incumbent president, Lyndon Johnson, announced he would not seek re-election; Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were gunned down in public; and 12,000 police and 15,000 army regulars and National Guardsmen bloodily suppressed rioters at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Trouble was everywhere, and the country seemed to be coming apart.

The day, February 2, calls to mind Groundhog Day-suggesting that the title might be intended symbolically-suggesting an ambiguous turning point, a day when we can hope the worst is over. But maybe not.

The poem begins with confirmation that it is, indeed, about trouble, a gathering of dark forces: the barren, snowswept imagery of night and winter, the swinging anapestic rhythm accelerated almost at once with quick iambs, the somber tone sustained through the final words: “dead of winter.”

The second line switches to a faster, more urgent trochaic rhythm, hard and driving, ratcheting up the pace and creating anticipation as the imagery becomes more strident, winter turning into war, militant “r” sounds harshly echoing and amplifying “winter” with a slant-rhyme: “danger.”

In two brief lines, the poet establishes a dark and troubled world with danger on the rise. Having been drawn into a sense of accelerating trouble, both in the imagery and in the rhythm, the reader expects the rising crescendo to continue, leading to fireworks of some sort in the final line.

But it doesn’t happen. Instead, the poet shifts to an iambic rhythm, the most natural rhythm in English-the basic rhythm of everyday speech. Everything relaxes. Disaster is averted, normalcy returns, and images of winter and war fade into an image of an ordinary springtime routine. The ominous sounds of “winter” and “danger” are transformed subtly into the green freshness of “clover.” Spring has arrived. In some sense, the world is in order.

Given what went before, a world of winter and war, is this enough? Is the poet’s response to the troubled world strong enough? Is his action-to be out planting clover-an adequate answer to the desolate world in which he lives?

There is more, of course. It isn’t a fertile field that he plants, but a rocky hillside, perhaps ruined by the short-sighted, abusive practices that Berry so eloquently laments in other writings. And he plants clover, a nitrogen-fixer that restores fertility to exhausted land. He isn’t merely doing spring planting, he is healing a place where life is hard because of neglect and shoddy work.

In a troubled world, he adopts a local focus: repairing his little bit of the earth and planting for the future, keeping the basic work of peace going. He tends to his own affairs, making his place more abundant, more beautiful, more productive. Is it enough?

I suppose we make our own answers, but for me the answer is “yes.” One response sane and intelligent response to trouble is to abandon trouble’s strident tones and rhythms, to leave the urge for a quick resolution which, in being quick, is bound to be violent.

Sometimes, taking a longer view and changing the rhythm is precisely the best we can do.

Building Social Capital

The phrase “social capital” migrated from sociology into popular usage a few years ago, and it has spread rapidly, because it provides an explanation for why some towns and neighborhoods flourish, while similar ones with similar financial resources don’t. The idea is that people who have shared values and a rich web of informal communication routes are more able to get things done. A standard measurement of social capital has been the number of voluntary associations people belong to, including political parties, churches, bowling leagues, gun clubs, book discussion groups, and anything else that brings people together, so they can get to know one another.

Several long-term longitudinal studies show that when teenagers are involved in participatory projects such as the Heritage Project, they are twice as likely as uninvolved students to become civically engaged adults. Between 1945 and 1949, one teacher in Pennsylvania arranged for high school seniors to work with town officials researching the community. Thirty years later these students were four times as likely as nonparticipants to have joined voluntary associations. (1)

Psychology professor James Youniss suggests that young people who are involved in community projects incorporate the dispositions and skills of civic engagement deeply into their identities. They learn “to see society as a construction of human actors with political and moral goals rather than as a distant, performed object. . .Instead of thinking of society as determined by impersonal forces, youth recognized that their agency gives them responsibility for the way society is and for the well-being of its members.”

Adolescents sometimes get lost in the vast array of options our pluralistic society thrusts at them. Despite the popular view of adolescence as a time of troubled isolation, most young people forge their identities by joining others in respectable causes. When adults invite youth to join them in what amounts to the perpetual renewal of community, the effects can continue for decades, paying dividends not only to the individuals but also to the communities where they live.

Teachers who believe the work of the Project is important-posing fundamental questions about what it takes to build and sustain community; joining in shared inquiry; learning the techniques of intelligence to convert ignorance to knowledge; documenting, preserving, interpreting, and presenting our cultural and natural heritage-and who tell young people in a direct and clear way that it is important, may accelerate the building of social capital. We save our children in part by telling them what we are saving them for.

The Concept of Social Capital

The phrase “social capital” was first used by Glenn Loury in the 1970s to explain persisting inequality between groups. He pointed out that a lack of social connections and informal networks limited some groups’ ability to foster their own development. Based on the ideas of financial capital (money) and human capital (education), social capital refers to the relationships, shared values, and social trust that help people act together for their mutual benefit. The concept has drawn considerable attention because it amended narrowly constructed economic models which could not account for all of what happened. Without a modicum of social capital, even routine business becomes excruciatingly difficult, and a growing body of research identifies “social capital” as a key to making communities work. It may be a key to making democracy itself work.

In United States towns and cities in the 1830s, the energy of local democracy was the most remarkable feature of the young country to visiting French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville. “Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of disposition,” he observed, “are forever forming associations. There are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand different types-religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute. . . . Nothing, in my view, deserves more attention than the intellectual and moral associations in America.”

Since the early 1990s sociologists have been heeding Toqueville’s call to pay attention to the web of associations that undergird strong communities. People who live in dense networks of social interaction, who have experience with each other, and have developed informal networks of communication, develop what might be thought of as a “collective intelligence” that helps them build better schools, foster quicker economic development, and maintain lower crime rates. It makes getting from “I” to “we” easier and faster.

A boy in Red Lodge who meets a retired rancher while doing an oral history project, then returns during hunting season to look for mule deer, is engaging in one of the thousands of small associations that make larger things more likely. Through bowling leagues, card parties, and quilting bees, people get to know one another, construct shared norms through informal conversations, and lay the groundwork for further development that may occur.

Of course, not all associations lead to better communities. Some actually destroy social capital by increasing fear and distrust: teen gangs, militia movements, and partisan politics. Much of the research about social capital focuses on its decline, which most sociologists who have studied the matter agree has been sudden and sharp over the past three decades. In a 1996 survey conducted by Gallup and the University of Virginia, eight out of ten people agreed that the nation is run by a network of special interests, public officials, and the media, and that elected officials don’t care what “people like me” think. (2) Feelings of powerlessness more than a lack of concern may account for much of the decline in social capital.

Schools and Social Capital

What can be done? Not much, as long as the focus stays at the national level. But turning our attention to the local places we live reveals endless chances to move things forward. Antidotes to feelings of powerlessness can best be developed at the local level, and, especially in rural areas, schools can play a lead role.

For one thing, schools can incorporate local studies units at all grade levels, teaching again and again the contributions regular citizens have made to the quality of life. Even more important, they can involve adolescents in projects similar to the Heritage Project, where students take part in the work of community, learning skills and attitudes that are likely to affect them and their towns for decades.

The direct benefits to young people of doing this are clear and compelling. Schools have been deluged with programs to meet the “needs” of students, but, as Paul Theobald, Dean of Education at Wayne State College, points out, “to appreciably attend to the ‘needs’ of students, schools must contribute to the re-creation of communities.” (3) Many programs are now trying to re-create a connectedness that was lost as community was neglected. The American Academy of Pediatrics found that the presence of any one of several indicators of social capital-such as church affiliation or neighborhood support-increased an “at risk” child’s chances of doing well by 29%. (4) Some research indicates that social capital may be most important for families that lack money or education.

And the benefits to communities themselves are just as compelling. Though the phrase “social capital” is fairly new, the basic understanding behind it is not. It was the basis of the Montana Study in the 1940s, when communities came together to conduct 10-week shared inquiries into their history, their circumstances, and their future possibilities. These groups avoided attempts at solving any problems during the study, trusting that if they got to know one another and practiced educated ways of working together, solutions would come later.

Since the Montana Study, much work has been done at understanding the way social capital develops. For many rural communities, the school provides the best hope for the community’s future. The fate of schools and their communities is deeply linked, and with the simple step of “teachers and school administrators viewing community well-being as one of their professional obligations,” (5) everything changes. “The more students understand their community and its environs-its social structure, its economy, its history, its music, its ecology-the more they become invested in that community. Such investment increases the likelihood that they will find ways to either stay in or return to the community.”

The significance of this, Theobald says, is “not just that one small place is saved, but that the character of our national culture is transformed in the process. Indeed, the promise of rural educational renewal is that it can start us all on the road to a more sustainable future.” At the same time, “providing students with the opportunity to engage in real learning for the purpose of building community does, in fact, represent systemic change-change that goes far beyond national goals or centrally prescribed curriculum standards. Integrating schooling with the day-to-day life of the community, providing students with an opportunity to be a part of society now rather than at some time in the distant future, and involving students in the struggle to solve complex issues that are important to their community not only provides more powerful learning, but it goes far toward reducing the growing alienation among our young people.”

Communities with numerous and effective internal communication paths don’t just happen. They are intentionally created, and they normally develop in stages. (6) From the first stage-the ordinary and unavoidable interactions of citizens-people form organizations, such as museum boards, PTAs, mentoring programs, and the like. The creation of formal organizations is the second stage, and through these organizations people develop a civic infrastructure, which is the third stage.

The civic infrastructure includes the formal and informal processes that bring neighbors together to work on shared problems, create webs of relationships, and build collective resources that contribute to cultural capital-the experiences, understandings, skills, relationships, and abilities of community members. Social interaction by itself needn’t build either social or cultural capital-it can diminish both, as when conflict sours relations and turns people off to public life, so it’s important for leaders to be deliberate about building such a civic infrastructure.

This includes keeping in mind, constantly, that building social capital is different than solving problems. Damaging a relationship to gain a short-term advantage may be as foolish as selling the seed corn. This is especially true in small towns, where the same people figure again and again, year after year. Using the rational problem solving approach, agencies typically do a “needs assessment” then provide some mix of resources to “solve the problem” without really engaging ordinary people in talking about their mutual interests and priorities, or inviting them to work as partners, or developing their capacity to solve their own problems. Quite often programs to solve problems interfere with the development of social capital. Grant requirements, expert jargon, expectations that problems “belong” to specialized agencies rather than to the community, and turf issues can stifle hope of a common sense conversation, in which ordinary people discuss seriously what they can do to meet local challenges.

The final stage is the development of a civic culture--the habits, dispositions, and norms that characterize a community. Such a culture is the medium within which members converse, developing a vision of the community’s future in which they have a hand in shaping their own destiny. The insight that drove the Montana Study’s success was that democracy needs to be practiced at the local level.

The Future of School and Community: Incorporating “21st Century Skills” into authentic research projects

In today’s world, any community vision that is sustainable is likely to include provisions for lifelong learning of both a formal and an informal nature, for bringing the next generation into the conversation, and for seeing and developing connections between the locality and the larger world. In other words, it will be to some extent a vision about education.

One vision of the school of the not-so-distant future hearkens back to John Dewey’s vision for an ideal school early in this century. In Dewey’s vision, the school was organized around two large central rooms: the library and the museum. We have realized the first part of his vision, and few schools today try to operate without a library of some sort. We are just beginning to realize the second part, as more and more educators see that gathering, interpreting, and presenting history and science through local conditions helps students reach deeper understanding of what they are learning. Their learning is situated in an actual world, rather than being presented as a series of decontextualized abstractions.

Exhibit design, for example, is naturally interdisciplinary. Designers must research the resources they have available, focus on the story they want to tell by evaluating what is important and significant, select among many details those that are most telling, consider the audience and how an experience can be created and an understanding communicated using all the tools of visual and literary arts, and in doing these things they are learning how to work in teams, how to organize knowledge, how to complete large-scale projects, and how to communicate. Such work is naturally inviting, providing ample opportunities for parents, community organizations, and experts to get involved.

Such insights have led some communities to go so far as to house their museums and schools in the same building, and others to create museum-based magnet schools. These moves help schools overcome the perennial curse of classrooms: tasks that are not real work connected to the real world. It is this disconnect that has led to the word “academic” being used so often as a synonym for “impractical.”

As such work becomes more central to a town or neighborhood, education becomes more lively at the same time social capital accrues. This is the vision museum educator Harold Skramstad suggests for the school of the 21st century: “It is an educational environment in which children come together to learn about real subject-matter content and to develop critical thinking skills. They work with the real things and ideas of science, art, and the humanities. They work in a setting of participatory learning, led and mentored by adults who are themselves skilled practitioners of the particular craft or discipline the children are learning. The work is rigorous, involving projects that require team-based inquiry and demanding a variety of complementary learning skills. The rewards come in the form of recognition of the individual intellectual and emotional strengths of the learners as well as recognition of the strength of the working teams. All of the activities undertaken require basic skills in thoughtful and critical reading, analytical thinking, problem-solving, clear writing, and computer understanding. The measurement of learning comes in a variety of forms, including standardized tests, teacher assessment, and student self-assessment.” (7)

Schools today wrestle with a host of problems. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has advised that when a problem seems impossible to solve, one strategy is to take off our blinders and deal with larger issues. It may be insoluble because it is larger than we think. We may be too focused on symptoms to see the scale of the problem, as if a physician tried to treat the lack of vigor caused by malnutrition by prescribing a weightlifting regime. “Community” has become something of a buzzword in education because it becomes increasingly clear that many of the problems that preoccupy schools-drug abuse, disorder, teen pregnancy, gang membership-are symptoms of a larger malady: towns and neighborhoods that leave people feeling disconnected and unsupported. We might reap real benefits if some of the resources devoted to the host of programs that has grown up around each problem were devoted instead to increasing our social capital.

The most serious problems we face as a people--the environment, poverty, racism, crime-cannot be solved from the top down. They have deep, interrelated and pervasive causes and can be solved only through changes in the behavior of millions of people. Such changes are unlikely until people begin to feel their agency, the capacity to exert power, which is implicit in the idea of social capital: through interactions with others, we can realize our interests and our values.

Carl Jung pointed out that “All of the greatest and most important problems of life are fundamentally insoluble. . .They can never be solved, but only outgrown. This ‘outgrowing’ proves on further investigation to require a new level of consciousness. Some higher or wider interest appeared on the horizon and through this broadening of outlook the insoluble problem lost its urgency. It was not solved logically in its own terms but faded when confronted with a new and stronger life urge.” (8)

Listening to students who’ve done local studies projects, I feel confident they are both making connections and seeing those connections as important. Emma Garman from Townsend said, “I now believe in the importance of recording personal stories and experiences so these events may be available for future generations.” Betsy Lee from Corvallis noted that through examining the past and listening to elders, “We learn how to live our lives to make a difference, and that’s what really counts.” Tyanna Wiediger, also from Corvallis, noted that her original research in her community “really made me think about my own community and how I can help it and learn about it.”

In Bigfork nearly every teacher contributed in some way as high school juniors spent a year completing a mulitmedia history of the community at the request of the Chamber of Commerce, and the result of this academic work brought 350 people out to the local theater to learn more about themselves.

Students in Townsend published a book, “Women in History” which involved them in dozens of interviews with community residents, and resulted in a deeper understanding of the contributions ordinary people had made to the quality of life there.

In Harlowton, students writing hundred-year histories of three ranching families brought the entire community together to think about what had been accomplished in the past and what lessons might be applied to their prospects for the future.

In Ronan, the gymnasium was transformed into a large museum with dozens of exhibits, many focusing on local research, created by students in nearly all classes. In Eureka, students participated in a community reading series at a local bookstore, reading local history back to people from town. In Browning, young people learned about the past directly from elders who have struggled all their lives with questions about communal continuity and change.

In Simms, twenty-two mentors from the community worked directly with students on a comprehensive history of the high school, going back to 1918. This involved countless interviews and conversations as well as hours of collaboration to build a model of the first school, compile a book of photo-essays, and numerous other projects. The amount and quality of work that was done would have been simply impossible without community members helping.

Schools in Libby, Roundup, Chester, Corvallis, Townsend, Harlowton, and Dillon are working more and more closely with museums on joint projects. All are engaging students in collaborative learning projects that embed strong academic work in a context of community service.

Teachers in such places are becoming true community leaders, not by taking over the podium but by creating invitations to a broad array of community organizations and members to help in the education of the community’s children. Everyone-students, teachers, parents-report that although quite a lot of work is involved, it is fun and exciting.

We have gotten so accustomed to “solving problems” by administering unpleasant prescriptions that we too readily assume that doing the right thing has to be hard and unpleasant. But as with sowing clover in the spring, the fact that it’s fun and rewarding doesn’t mean it’s unimportant.

Learning and developing social capital are not onerous tasks. They partake of the joy of life, which may be the best antidote to trouble we are likely to find.


1. Younnis, James; Jeffrey A. McLellan; Miranda Yates (1997). “What we know about engendering civic identity,” American Behavioral Scientist, v40 n5 p. 620-672.

2. Lappe, Francis Moor and Paul Martin Du Bois (1997). “Building social capital without looking backward,” National Civic Review v86 n2 p.. 119-129.

3. Theobald, Paul; Paul Nachtigal (1995). “Culture, community, and the promise of rural education,” Phi Delta Kappan v77 n2 p. 132-136. (Special Section on Rural Schools)

4. Runyan, Desmond, et al. (1998). “Children who prosper in unfavorable environments: the relationship to social capital,” Pediatrics, v101 n1 p. 12-19.

5. Theobald, Paul; Jim Curtiss (2000). “Communities as Curricula,” Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy, v15 i1 p106.

6. Potapchuk, William R.; Jarle P. Crocker; William H. Schechter, Jr. (1997). “Building community with social capital: chits and chums or chats with change,” National Civic Review v86 n2 p. 129-140.

7. Skramstad, Harold (1999). “An Agenda for American Museums in the Twenty-First Century,” Daedalus v128 i3 p109.

8. Jung, Carl G. “Commentary on ‘The Secret of the Golden Flower,’”The Collected Works of C.G. Jung, vol. 13 (Princeton University Press, 1969.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey






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