Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Hollowing out the Middle – a book review

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?   

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

When men refuse to be responsible for their penises and the the consequences thereof and copulate with women who want to have children out of wedlock the result is inevitable. Children from homes with married adults do better than kids from "single Mothers". They and the sperm donor are teaching their offspring that there is no commitment, that men are unreliable and that women have to pick up the mess. I am sick and tired of hearing single parent homes. Little boys learn that it is OK to walk away and leave the mess for someone else to handle. It takes a village, but if the message from the PRIMARY CARE GIVERS is one of irresponsible and childish behaviour, there is not much hope for the village. By the time the kid gets to school, the pattern has been set. School cannot love or nurture children: the teachers get paid and love cannot be paid for. We are abandoning children to day care and relatives and everything except what they need: One primary person in the world who can handle anything and who will never fail to take care of him. In other words MY MOM. Who made it all OK and who's wrath I feared mightly. The problem is not, I repeat Not economic. It is the selfishness of the post war generation. Me included. My kids are OK because of the woman I married. She is a wonderful human being with ethics out the ass.
I have been playing catch up since she married me. My children were permitted TV on a VERY limited basis. We are all whores in this country. Read Why We Suck by Denis Leary. It is eye opening. It is a crisis of the spirit. We want and are children about it. "What about my rights?!!!" What about my responsibilities? Nobody and I mean nobody asks that. What can I do that will make the life of my neighbor better? Where can I volunteer? We are pussies. Pussies. We never suck it up and keep moving.
I have to go now. I am late for band practice.
Bless you, Kitty.

The Rev.