To rebuild the Midwestern economy, the first thing we must do is outlaw football.
Oh, come on. I can't be serious. It'll never happen.
Well, yes, I am serious. Nothing would free the Midwest to get to work on the problems of the 21st century like getting rid of football -- especially high school football.
Or more accurately, what football symbolizes. Here's what I mean:
It seems ludicrous, but the Midwest is sliced and diced into thousands of rivalrous units -- towns, counties, school districts, states. All these little entities have two big things in common. First, they're caught squarely in the path of the global economy and, second, they're too small to cope by themselves. Cooperation and collaboration is the only rational key to a better future.
But would they even dream of cooperating with each other? Fat chance. Each insists on its own independence. Each begrudges anything good that happens to its neighbor. Each promotes its own superiority, its own uniqueness.
They are, of course, not independent at all. Nor are they unique. All, in fact, all bailing from the same sinking boat.
But inbred rivalries are hard to discard. There seems to be something in the Midwestern DNA, some native cussedness, that forces us to scorn our neighbor. We seem programmed to be rivals.
But this rivalry is hard to maintain when each town and each school is pretty much the same. There has to be a reason for this scorn and, if no real reason exists, it must be invented.
It's football. Or basketball, in season. Either way, Friday night rivalries defeat any attempt at cooperation the rest of the week.
This sounds satirical. But I've talked recently with groups of Midwesterners who are desperately trying to overcome this divisiveness. These include teachers, rural development specialists, economic developers, investors and business people.
All agree that, if there's one thing keeping the Midwest from reinventing its economy, it's this inability to work together across artificial jurisdictional lines. And all agree that if sports didn't cause this petty rivalry, it symbolizes it, and is a mighty barrier to getting anything done.
A prime example is the profusion of school districts across the Midwest. Almost every Midwestern state has three times as many school districts as it does counties, and most of these districts are in rural areas. All this in a region where some counties are losing so many people that they can't support hospitals, say, or a decent grocery store.
Iowa, for instance, has 99 counties and 369 school districts, 273 of them rural. Michigan has 83 counties and no less than 801 school districts. In Ohio, it's 88 counties and 778 school districts. Illinois may be the champion -- 102 counties and 970 school districts, 389 in rural areas. (These figures vary, depending on whether you include various special districts. The figures cited here come from a survey by the federal National Center for Education Statistics in Washington.)
All these school districts, naturally, have schools -- primary, middle and secondary. Most have shrinking student bodies. Many are too small to provide a decent education. Everybody knows that a radical consolidation of these schools and school districts only makes sense.
Consolidation would bring big savings on facilities, communications, purchasing and other costs. It would enable schools to invest in facilities -- computers, lab equipment, libraries, good music programs -- that only bigger schools can afford. Not least, it would permit big staff reductions: the fact is that there just aren't that many good teachers.
I've been surprised to talk to many teachers and their representatives who agree with this. Gary W. Norris, the school superintendent in Waterloo, Iowa, recently told the legislature in Kansas, where he used to work, that high schools with about 500 or 600 students are ideal.
"When a community allows extracurricular activities to drive the size of the school, the schedule, the course load, teaching and learning, it is only adults who will be to blame when America loses further competitiveness in the world," Norris said.
"There are currently nearly 300 school districts in Kansas," he went on. "That reality has not changed a great deal in the past 30 years. There is an incredible duplication of services that actually focuses money away from instruction. Eliminating a payroll clerk and a secretary would allow that district to hire an additional science teacher. Running 200 copies rather than 20,000 copies costs too much. Floor wax is cheaper by the barrel.........."
But getting rid of a school also means getting rid of a team and a coach. Norris didn't single out sports among those "extracurricular activites" that are underminding education, but I doubt that he thinks that the school choir drives the size of the school and its schedule.
OK, consolidation and cooperation make sense. Why don't they happen? For reasons that have nothing to do with educating our children.
Instead, every little town holds on to its local school for dear life. Every underpopulated school district fights to stay independent. The reason is a desperate grip on local identity, a feeling that a town must have a school to remain a town. There's a realization that, when the school goes, the town goes too, sooner or later. When a town has lost everything else, sometimes the only thing is has left is a school.
And that school is symbolized by its teams. What a bunch of teenagers do on Friday night enables the adults to pretend that their town still counts for something. These adults cannot imagine consolidation, if it means they couldn't root for their Lions or Tigers any more.
The fact that this emotion runs deep doesn't mean it makes any sense. But the fact that it is frivolous doesn't mean it can be laughed off. We're talking about identity here and, in too many Midwestern towns and counties, identity is all they've got left.
(I'm not kidding about this identity. Almost every Midwestern town announces itself at the city limits with a sign proclaiming that it is the home of the 1998 AA-class state wrestling champions, or the 2002 regional girls track meet winners. Just once I'd like to see a sign bragging that all the school's graduates have gone to college.)
This Midwestern beatification of athletics isn't confined to small towns. I'm told that the Quad Cities of Iowa/Illinois voted down a measure to turn themselves into one big city on the argument that the residents of the various cities couldn't root for their local teams any more. This wasn't true: all these places, like Moline and Davenport, are big enough to have their own schools, but the emotional ties to Friday Night Lights remained a powerful force.
Nor is it confined to towns and cities. Midwestern states where Buckeyes and Wolverines battle on Saturday afternoons have been bred not only to support their teams but to suspect anyone who roots for the other teams. There are many reasons for the balkanization of Midwestern states, but this athletic allegiance is one of them.
This, too, makes no sense. The countries of the European Union have merged a lot of economic and other governmental functions, have ceded a lot of sovereignty -- and still field national soccer teams whose fate is a matter of life and death to their fans (literally, if the British are involved.) Just because Chicago and Milwaukee have more in common with each other than either does with its respective state doesn't mean they can't keep cheering on the Bears and the Packers.
So no, we don't really have to outlaw football. We just have to put it in its proper place, as a children's game that provides a Friday night spectacle but that has nothing to do with real life. In other words, if our children are to have a future, we have to behave like adults.