Plugging the Brain Drain

When I was traveling in the Highlands of Scotland a few weeks ago, college officials there spoke of their concern that the brightest young people were leaving the area to attend prestigious universities and never returning. They referred to the phenomenon as a “brain drain.”  It was interesting to hear in another part of the world a term that describes an issue that is also of great concern here in the heartland of the U.S.

“Study hard, get a good education, and you can punch your ticket out of this one-horse town.”  This is an age-old refrain that has been preached to young people in small towns across the Midwest for more than a century. If you haven’t heard it directly, you have certainly heard it in literature and film. In my favorite sports movie, “Hoosiers,” the assistant principal urges the new coach to stay away from the local basketball phenom so he can study hard and get a scholarship to a prestigious liberal arts college. If Jimmy Chitwood can do that, she argues to the middle-aged coach Dale, he won’t be like all the other 50-year-old failures still stuck in small town Hickory.

Last fall, two sociologists reported that this same message—study hard and get out of town—is still the central message in small Midwestern high schools. Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas spent two years in a northeastern Iowa town listening and observing. Their report, “Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What it Means for America” (Beacon Press, 2009), echoes the message I heard growing up in rural Indiana and is not unlike the concerns I heard two weeks ago in the Highlands of Scotland. Carr and Kefalas conclude that local schools, supported by local tax funds, are undermining the local economy and culture by consciously or subconsciously privileging those who, because of academic promise, are being encouraged to abandon their hometowns and apply their gifts to the benefit of communities hundreds or thousands of miles away. Those who remain are not prepared to maintain the vitality and viability of small towns across the American Midwest. In the closing paragraph of the first chapter of their report, Carr and Kefalas make the difficult recommendation that small-town schools reallocate resources and effort to support those who will stay home and rebuild communities of the heartland.

While the authors’ message is focused primarily on pre-college education, it is an issue that should not be ignored by the premier colleges and universities of the Midwest. As a founding member of the prestigious Associated Colleges of the Midwest and an as an institution that traces its roots to community leaders who understood the importance of liberal arts colleges in a local economy, Monmouth College is an ideal candidate for leadership in reversing the “hollowing out” of our country.

Our approach is a bit different from that suggested by Carr and Kefalas. Certainly their suggestion—that we should invest more of our scarce educational resources in middle-ability students who are less likely to be recruited away from the heartland—is worth considering. We believe, however, that this philosophy may be selling the Midwest short. We believe, in fact, that the Midwest may well become the single most influential region in the world during our students’ lifetime, and that by educating them of this fact we will inspire them to remain here and be productive citizens.

How can we make such a claim about our region? We live on a globe of finite size with an ever-growing population. Our well-being will increasingly rely on our collective ability to produce food and energy from limited resources. With its fertile soil, temperate climate, fresh water, reliable wind, ample coal, and a remarkable work ethic, America’s Midwest (should we call it the Global Midwest?) is poised to supplant the Mideast as the most dominant spot on the globe.

History tells us that when a region is rich in resources that are in demand, someone will use those resources to create wealth.  Sometimes the region benefits, and those most closely associated with the resources thrive. Other times the benefits are enjoyed disproportionately by those from afar. The remarkable resources of the Midwest provide promise—but not a guarantee—that our communities, our culture and our neighbors will thrive. I am convinced that the determining factor will be whether colleges like Monmouth step forward and fulfill the vision of those who had the foresight to create liberal arts institutions on the 19th-century frontier.

I am confident that Monmouth College can be a leader in creating a Global Midwest that serves all of society, with particular benefit to those who live and work here in the heartland. Our traditional brand of liberal arts education, with its emphasis on citizenship and its history of preparing effective leaders, will be a boon for our students and our community. Our recent decision to build a curriculum with active citizenship as the capstone experience could not have been better timed. Our traditional strengths in science and business, soon to be reinforced by a new building that will foster overlap in these fields, are ideally suited to prepare our young people to be at the center of a resurging Midwestern economy.

Emerging faculty interest in interdisciplinary studies of sustainable agriculture and renewable energy could not be timelier. The experimental mini-farm that we hope to establish later this year will be as exciting as it is unusual among nationally recognized liberal arts colleges. Our longstanding interest in creating remarkable teachers and leaders for local government will be essential to our revitalized communities. With so many Midwestern colleges trying to downplay their location, I am pleased that some of our faculty members have begun to design courses that highlight issues of regional literature, history, transportation and immigration issues.

The natural alignment between the emerging opportunities within this region and Monmouth’s emerging regional studies program has led some of us to adopt the phrase “Midwest Initiative.” Perhaps what exists is nothing more than the fortuitous alignment of 150 years of building an institution that tries to remain true to what our founders believed a college was meant to be. Or it may simply be the day-to-day fine tuning of a community committed to providing the best possible education for our students in the current environment. In any event, I believe that Monmouth College is ideally suited for reversing the Midwestern brain drain. We will do that by demonstrating to the best and brightest of our students—whether they are lifetime residents of our region or those who came from afar to study at this nationally respected college—that there are compelling reasons to build a career and a life in the Global Midwest.

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