Reinventing Our Midwestern Communities
Remarks: Reinventing Our Midwestern Communities
Richard C. Longworth
When I was doing my research on the Midwest, I was astonished to discover that not one college or university in the Midwest even taught a class on the Midwest. The University of Michigan teaches the history and economics of Michigan, and the University of Illinois has its experts on the state of Illinois. But not one school taught or studied the Midwest itself, this region where we all work and make our lives. Try googling on Southern Studies sometime and see what you find. There are whole departments and schools down there devoted to Dixie. But the Midwest as an academic subject is all but forgotten.
I'm glad to report that that's not entirely true anymore, due to the work and vision of the man we've come to honor today. Mauri Ditzler introduced the Midwest Matters initiative while he was at Monmouth and, in the process, put to shame much bigger schools across the region. It's a distinguished program, with courses on politics and government in the Midwest, the history of the Midwest, the economics and culture of the Midwest, a study of our region through its literature. Past courses have dealt with the infrastructure of the Midwest, specifically the role that railroads played in creating this region. Some of these courses use the Midwest as a laboratory. One class right now is dealing with immigration, by studying towns and cities across the Midwest that have large immigrant populations, to see how they're coping or not coping.
Naturally I hope Albion will emulate this experience. But it all begs the question: Why is the Midwest important? Why is it a proper subject of study? What can you get from studying the Midwest that you can't get from studying, say, Michigan? And what is the Midwest anyway? And what does this have to do with Albion, as a college and as a town? How can a liberal arts college in this post-industrial twenty-first century be a leader in reviving this region?
I would argue that we can't understand Albion these days, or this part of Michigan, unless we understand the broader Midwest—its history, its economics, its political push and pull, its demographics—which is to say its people, its culture, its literature and theatre, and, especially, its ideas and beliefs.
As you'll notice, they don't teach any of these things in medical schools or law schools. All this is basically people and their communities and civilizations, where they came from and where they're going. All this is the proper curriculum of a liberal arts school. Albion teaches all this now, but I wonder if it frames this teaching in the context of the Midwest, of our special civilization right here in the heart of America.
The Midwest itself is a little hard to define, harder than, say, Dixie or New England. Does it include the Great Plains or the Upper Peninsula or the southern parts of Indiana or Illinois, which seem more Southern than Midwestern? I'd argue that the real Midwest extends from western Pennsylvania through eastern Iowa, from upstate New York through Michigan to Minnesota. It is defined geographically by the Great Lakes and the Mississippi Basin. Its people came first in the great wave of immigration from northern Europe and New England, giving us our focus on education and hard work and community, enriched later by the Great Migration from the South and the more recent Hispanic immigration. Mostly, the Midwest hangs together economically. It's the industrial and agricultural center of the nation. It does two big things for a living, which are heavy industry and intensive agriculture—and globalization has thrown both of them right up in the air.
All this is true of Detroit and Battle Creek and Albion, just as it's true of Chicago and Monmouth, of Cleveland and Dayton, of Gary and South Bend. The Midwest rose together as a region in the Industrial Revolution and the century that followed. It declined together through the Rust Bowl days and the great challenges of globalization. It will rise again economically only as a region—a region that knows we're all in this together—and is willing to combine and leverage all its strengths, including the intellectual firepower of its great colleges and universities.
Albion most definitely shares this dynamic past and the struggles of the present. It has been one of the cars on the rollercoaster ride that defines the economic history of the Midwest in the twentieth century. But we're in a new century now and, in many ways, in a new economy, a global economy. The challenge now is to take what we know and what we've learned, to let the past go and then build on that past, to build a future within which Albion—the town and the college—its citizens and its students, can join the rest of this region in the great task of reinvention.
We hear a lot today about advanced manufacturing, about STEM training and narrow expertise and specialties. Where does this leave the liberal arts? I'd say it leaves them at the head of the parade. We aren't going to understand where we've been and where we're going unless we get out of the labs and trading rooms and consider our civilization as a whole. It's useful to know how to code, but it's better to know how to think, and that's what Albion and the liberal arts are all about.
As Alexander Pope wrote, "The proper study of mankind is man." He went on to describe this mankind as
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great,
With too much knowledge for the sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the stoic's pride.
That sounds a lot like where we are right now, not just in that "middle state" but wise enough to know that the history of the Midwest is not yet over and ambitious enough not to accept things as they are.
This then is the role of the liberal arts and of the colleges that make the liberal arts their mission. This mission is to tell us where we are and how we got here. The economy is part of this, and if your graduates don't understand the economy, they don't understand anything. But there's more to this than GDP statistics or unemployment rates. We're talking about our civilization here, our place in the world, about the lives that that economy pays for.
It's a fact that almost every place you can think of is there for some economic reason. Every town and city, every Detroit and Albion, was born because it served an economic purpose—as a farm town or mining town, as a port or factory town. If the reason was a valid one, then people came to work and stayed to build first a community and then a civilization, not just houses and workplaces but schools and parks and theatres and even colleges and universities. The economy supported all this, but the real point was the civilization itself.
But in economics, nothing lasts forever. The port silts up or the mine plays out or the factory closes and its jobs go somewhere else. When that happens, it's more than just an economic downturn. It's a civilizational challenge. Places where this happens can become backwaters, no longer able to support their civilizations, not disappearing exactly, but not the sort of place where you'd go to find a job or raise your family or make your life.
Or they can reinvent themselves, as towns and cities have done throughout history. They can find new ways to earn their living. With roots sunk deep into their native soil, they can build something new on the platform of the old. I know this can be done because I see it happening in old industrial areas, in the States and abroad, where people are determined to revive and rebuild.
But it takes leadership—and that leadership can and should come from the liberal arts. Not only the historians to tell us where we come from and how we got here. And not just the economists to explain this strange and rather scary new global economy to us.
We need international scholars, and we need to send our students around the world, because we're involved with that world today in ways more complicated and crucial than ever before. We have to reach beyond Albion and southern Michigan to strike alliances with other regions, American and otherwise, which are asking the same questions and facing the same problems.
The social impact of a changing economy is terrific and often traumatic for the people caught in this transformation. Might I suggest that there's a rich field of study, right here at home, for sociologists who can turn their own neighborhoods into laboratories.
This turbulence, of course, goes to the heart of a community, to its culture and its soul. We need to know how to think about this and for that we turn to our artists, to our writers, in particular. Over the past century, Southern writers defined the trauma of that region for the people who lived within it. It seems to me that the proper study of our writers and poets, our artists and dramatists, is the very human drama being played out right here right now.
Armed with this knowledge, Albion the College is perfectly placed to reach out to Albion the Town, to work together with the town and its leaders to build the future. This takes tact and diplomacy, and it may be slow going. The stresses between town and gown are real in almost every college town. In some of these towns, the colleges have almost built a moat around the campus, pretending that they are independent centers of academia, not really Midwestern, not really part of the communities that surround them. Not surprisingly, this arrogance is returned by the town—and nothing gets done.
I hope your students can be encouraged to be part of this community, to volunteer and intern there, to get to know the town and to establish personal ties that, with luck, will keep them here after graduation.
But I also hope that Albion will reach out to the other first-rate colleges and universities in this region, including community colleges, to combine your intellectual strengths, to leverage your local ties, to make common cause with other colleges and towns in Michigan and with the other schools in the Great Lakes Colleges Association. It's going to be a big job, this reinvention of our Midwestern civilization, and we need all the help we can get.
I know that Dr. Ditzler gets this because I've seen what he did in Monmouth. It's because I admire so much what he did there that I'm here today, to celebrate with you his arrival in Albion. He is a distinguished scholar, but more, he is a visionary leader. I know he is optimistic about Albion, both the school and the town, and from what I've seen and heard here, he has reason to be optimistic—as do we all.
Perhaps I can close with a few more lines from Alexander Pope to define this vision, this optimism. Nearly three hundred years ago, here's what he wrote:
Heaven forming each on other to depend,
A master, or a servant, or a friend,
Bids each on other for assistance call,
Till one man's weakness grows the strength of all.
Wants, frailties, passions, closer still ally
The common interest, or endear the tie.
"The common interest," he said. Not the narrow specialized interest, the parochial expertise that lives in academic silos, but the common interest on which sits "the strength of all." This is the power of learning and of the liberal arts, of a school like Albion, as it begins a new era in the history of this community and of all its people.