The entire country is becoming more and more polarized to the seacoasts and the big cities. This is not the figment of our collective imagination. "Hollowing out the Middle" is a book that explores the plight of the small towns in America's Heartland.
Written by Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas, "Hollowing out the Middle" discusses a phenomenon called 'Rural Brain Drain' where the Achievers, the best and brightest of a given class, are groomed by their teachers to leave home, never to return. The others are Stayers and Seekers. Stayers are mostly ignored, though the future of the small town actually rests with them. The Seekers are self-motivated to flee the crushing grip of small town sameness, many of them join the Military. (There is a class of 'Returners', but most of them are Achievers who don't make it in the big world.)
What I liked about this book is their honest assessment that this sorting process plays out in high school. That validation should make many of us sigh with relief. We weren't hallucinating, high school WAS rigged! The whole community operates in the favor of the 'Achiever' class, grooming them to leave home. As these people do leave and never return, they take all those resources with them, weakening the community left behind.
For a town like Ashtabula the result is clear – the Achievers leave – the Stayers stay – completely unprepared to handle the problems of their home town. So things get worse because the people who stay behind are brainwashed into believing 'they will never amount to anything.' They are not educated to take on the roles most needed in their communities. There are no 'Stayer' doctors, lawyers, dentists, engineers or politicians. The Stayer students are left to rot – the compost heap that provides the next generation of High School students.
I wish this book would be useful to solve the problems of Ashtabula. It may not be possible for that beleaguered city to turn around. Main Street is a ghost town, with weeds growing in the cracks of the road. Like the rest of the country – the Brain Drain coupled with the weak economy has put many a small town or city on death row.
It appears that Ashtabula did one thing right – they rebuilt the school system. It was an effort to attract a big manufacturing plant that would put the unskilled Stayers to work. Unfortunately 'elephant hunting' as the authors call it, is not the answer.
Most towns and small cities are content with trying to attract the 'Returners,' those who miss their small town safety net. The real solution is twofold. First to encourage immigration – which means a small town would have to open itself up to strangers. Not likely to happen without a fight. The second is to cultivate what is already there – the Stayers are the town's most precious resource.
Even if the sorting process stopped tomorrow (not very likely since this has been going on for 20 years) there is little left of the middle class anywhere in rural America, let alone in Ashtabula. The poor (for the most part single mothers and their children) are well and truly damned by the dysfunctional system that offers no hope from cradle to grave.
This means, EVERY town needs implement alternative education in order to survive and thrive. Get the people who missed out on education the first time an opportunity to upgrade their education to a skilled trade. That means GEDs for the dropouts and then true education can take place. Not a second sorting meant to send others off into the world, a chance for people to become who the town needs them to be – the parents of the next generation AND the leaders and developers of the local economy.
Education is the answer – though Schools are the source of the problem.
Ironic, isn't it?