A new book must be added to the short shelf of good books about the Midwest. It's called "Hollowing Out The Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America" (Beacon Press), and it tells why so many Midwestern small towns are literally commiting civic suicide. The problem lies with the towns themselves in general and with the schools in particular, and fixing it means changing the way these towns have always looked at themselves and their children.
The authors of "Hollowing" are not Midwesterners themselves. They are a pair of married academics, Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas, who live in Philadelphia but who spent a year and a half living in a northwest Iowa town that they call "Ellis" -- a pseudonym, like the names of all the local people quoted in the book. (That neck of the Iowa woods is enjoying a literary season in the sun. "Ellis" is not far from Oelwein, the subject of Nick Reding's over-praised book on the methamphetamine epidemic, "Methland.")
The theme of "Hollowing" is that the smartest and most dynamic young people who grow up in the Midwest's "Ellises" go away to college and don't come back. This isn't news, but the reason why they leave and impact on their towns is eye-opening.
Basically, say Carr and Kefalas, these bright youngsters are bred -- almost forced -- to leave. "Fueling the out-migration trends is a regional filtering system pushing some young people to stay and others to go. Leaving, or not, does not result only from young people's individual preferences: instead, it is a reflection of their resources, particularly the messages they receive from their social networks. Simply put, leaving is something that young people must be pushed, prodded and cultivated to do, whereas staying just sort of happens."
The authors say that these towns spot their future high-fliers early and push them into a career path that pretty much guarantees they will leave. "Teachers, parents and neighbors feel obligated to push and prod the talented kids to succeed, yet, when their best and brightest follow their advice, the investment the community has made in them becomes a boon for someplace else, while the remaining young people are neither afforded the same attention nor groomed for success of any kind."
Especially in schools, all educational effort is spent on kids who will leave, while the "stayers" -- the kids on whom the towns' future depends -- are short-changed.
Carr says he put this bluntly to the high school principal and the school board: "You do realize, don't you, that because you do your job so well here, that you are basically making sure that the best students leave Ellis, and the odds are they won't come back? And at the same time, you spend very little of your resources on most of those who stay or return." He expected a hostile response but most people shrugged and the principal said, "This is the job we set out to do."
"Certainly," Carr writes, "(the principal) understood that the school plays a pivotal role in this process, but he concluded that the job of an effective educator was to nurture and send off talented youth, despite the fact that doing so meant the town was slowly committing suicide."
I know from personal experience that this process has been going virtually forever. Once, it didn't make that much difference. Now it does.
I benefitted from this kind of personal grooming -- from parents, schools, neighbors -- when I was growing up, in another era, in another Iowa small town. Most of my classmates didn't go on to college, and many of them stayed in town. I've kept in touch with some of them and know that, by and large, they've built solid, even prosperous, lives for themselves. If they regret their life choices, they don't show it.
In that postwar era, Midwestern towns had plenty of good jobs -- ag-related, industrial, retail -- for those who stayed. In the global era, those jobs don't exist any more. The advent of megafarming has eliminated most farmily farming. Steady, low-skill jobs in industry are being out-sourced. When a Wal-Mart or a Target opens up out on the highway, it kills off all the little shops downtown.
My classmates could build good lives without college degrees. Their children and grandchildren today have to work two or three bad jobs just to survive.
But the educational pattern that Carr and Kefalas describe hasn't changed at all. The brightest are still being groomed to leave and succeed. The rest are still being groomed to stay -- and fail.
Without question, young people who go away to college seldom return because there so few jobs locally that will use their brains or their education. Many of these towns harbor forlorn hopes that, when these youngsters get married and have kids, they'll leave the cities and return to the safety and stability of small-town life. It rarely happens. Honestly, what would they do there?
This isn't likely to change. Carr and Kefalas say, and I agree, that schools and towns, while continuing to give opportunities to college-bound students, must devote much more attention to those that stay. High schools and, especially, community colleges can develop 21st-century skills, can polish competence in technology and medical fields, and, especially, can promote entrepreneurialism: the lack of a college degree is no barrier to having a good, innovative, money-making idea.
See the articles below for more information on these topics:
- Are Overlooked 'Stayers' Keeping Rural Iowa Alive?, Des Moines Register
- Rural School Districts Face Different Challenges, Wichita Eagle
- Many Graduates Nostalgic About Their Hometown, But Few Consider It a Place to Settle Down, Leader Telegram (Eau Claire, WI)
- Most 2009 Graduates See Their Futures Leading Elsewhere, Leader Telegram (Eau Claire, WI)