American Talk

Liberal arts and the post-industrial Midwest

AlbionFor more than a century, the Midwestern landscape has sparkled with small educational gems, private colleges devoted to the liberal arts. Most of them are located in small towns and cities which boomed in the Industrial Age but have seen better days.

What is the relationship now between these small colleges and the towns that surround them? Can the colleges and the liberal arts help their towns recover their economic vitality? Can these schools ignite the revival of their towns, or are some of the towns so far gone that they might pull their colleges down into the wreckage of the post-industrial Midwest?

These thoughts were front and center last week when one of these colleges, Albion, inaugurated a new president, Mauri Ditzler, who has been president of another one of them, Monmouth, for the past nine years. Ditzler has made it his goal to use Albion College and the liberal arts in the revival of the town.

Albion, in southern Michigan, and Monmouth, in western Illinois, have much in common. Both towns have less than 10,000 people. Both colleges have about 1,300 students. Both the towns and their regions have suffered economically. Albion is probably in worse shape. Its economy was based on steel facilities and foundries that served the auto industry. Most are closed now. So are the town hospital and even the high school, which closed a year ago and now sends its students to Marshall, ten miles away down Interstate-94.

When we talk about economic revitalisation, we usually think about business start-ups, high-tech innovations, venture capital. When we think about the role of education in his process, we usually think about the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and math), not so much about poetry or philosophy.

But the liberal arts, by their nature, care more about the sweep of history than a moment in time. In personal terms, they deal more with careers than an immediate job. STEM skills are necessary, certainly. But only the liberal arts can deal with the larger sense of community, or rebuilding a society, not just an industrial park.

Ditzler has experience with this. Once, no college or university in the Midwest even taught a course about the Midwest — its history, economy, people, or literature. At Monmouth, Ditzler inaugurated the Midwest Matters Initiative, a series of courses on Midwestern issues, and helped the college turn its region, in western Illinois and eastern Iowa, in a laboratory for the study of issues such as economic development and immigration. 

At Albion, Ditzler’s first job is to let the town know that the college cares.

Albion belongs to the Great Lakes Colleges Association, a grouping of 13 small liberal arts colleges, including Antioch, Hope, Earlham, and Oberlin. Monmouth is one of 14 colleges in the Associated Colleges of the Midwest, 14 schools further west, including Carleton, Grinnell, Lawrence, and Knox. Most of these are first-rate schools set in small towns, with enrollments of about 1,300 to 3,000 students.

Some of these schools play an active part in their communities. But as Ditzler says, too many of them pretend they are misplaced islands of academic excellence, schools that think they belong in the Ivy League but which somehow took the wrong exit on their way to Connecticut. These schools spend their time ignoring the working-class towns around them. The towns sense this arrogance and return it. Most students spend four years there, then grab their diplomas and head for the cities.

Albion the college already encourages its students to volunteer and intern in Albion the town. But the most recent college president lived on a farm outside town. Ditzler’s residence is in town, across the street from the college. The street itself is a dividing line, with the college on one side and a declining neighborhood on the other: Ditzler is living on the neighborhood side of the street. Sure, it’s just symbolism, but it gets noticed, and it counts.

As a liberal arts college, Albion has its historians, to tell the town where it’s been, so it can think about where it’s going. It has its economists, who should leave their equations to explain this strange new global economy that has so battered the town. It has its sociologists, for whom the social impact of global change should be a natural course of study. It has its writers who can describe the town to itself, as Southern writers have been defining Dixie since the Civil War.

All this will take time, and an enormous amount of tact. In almost every Midwestern college town, the town-gown split is real. This is true in Albion, where the school is mostly white and well-to-do, while the town is 30 percent black and largely poor: a recent survey found that 63 percent of Albion residents earn too little to meet basic living needs. The first job may be to decide what the two Albions, town and college, are going to talk about. 

At the same time, the college can use its worldview and outside connections to embed the town in a broader region, to leverage the strength of its neighbors. With 8,600 people, Albion is too small to compete in the new post-industrial economy. It lies along the I-94 corridor with Kalamazoo, Battle Creek and Jackson, all larger industrial cities to which it could hitch its star.

That Great Lakes Colleges Association includes 12 other similar schools in 12 other towns, most of them facing the same problems, asking the same questions and seeking the same answers. That I-94 corridor also houses some fine schools, private and public, including Western Michigan University. Ditzler’s pioneering work at Monmouth on Midwestern regionalism is a natural model.

Albion, like so many other small Midwestern factory towns, already has two strikes against it. It needs all the help it can get. It may take more than a liberal arts college to turn it around, but it’s encouraging  to see such a college emerge from behind its academic walls to take on the challenge.

This post was originally published at The Midwesterner