Thinking About the Midwest

Posted by Richard C. Longworth on Thursday, November 19, 2009


Try Googling “Southern studies” and see what pops up. From the University of Virginia to Ole Miss, it seems that every school in Dixie has a curriculum devoted to the South — its history, economy, culture, triumphs and grievances.

Now try Googling “Midwestern studies.” Don’t worry, it won’t take long. A couple of societies exist to promote Midwestern literature. A college or two teach Native American history in the region. And that’s all.

Think of it. So far as I’ve been able to find out, not one college or university in the entire Midwest teaches even one course on the Midwest. Almost every school has experts and majors in studies on China, Latin America, sub-Sahara Africa and other important parts of the world. But no school sees a mandate to teach its students about the history, politics, economics, demographics or culture of the region where many of those students will live, work and spend their lives.

No wonder the Midwest has trouble acting as a region. No one is even thinking about it as a region.

Until now. Monmouth College, a small liberal arts college in western Illinois, has just launched the first Midwest Studies Initiative. This program, both brave and obvious, should shame other Midwestern colleges and universities, big and small, to do the same.

I’ll come back to Monmouth in a moment. But let’s talk a bit about the intellectual Gobi that passes for Midwestern studies now.

My book, Caught in the Middle, is probably the first book in at least 50 years for the general reader on the Midwest as a region. Apart from that, the Indiana University Press has published some excellent scholarly books on Midwestern history and economics, but nothing recently. The editor of some of those books, an Indiana history professor named James Madison, told me that generating interest in the region was “a lonely and tough battle.” He himself teaches other subjects, as does Andrew Cayton, who teaches early American history at Miami University of Ohio and, apparently in his spare time, has penned some of the most thoughtful essays on the Midwest.

One of those essays — entitled “The Anti-Region” — tries to explain the problem. Unlike the South or New England, the Midwest lacks defined borders: does it include the Great Plains? The Upper Peninsula? Is it a geographical region, or a state of mind? Is it just the eight states of the upper Midwest, or something more sprawling — “a mushy place,” as Cayton says?

More to the point, he said, Midwesterners do not obsess about the Midwest, as Southerners do the South. Faulkner’s characters stay in the South and wrestle daily with their Southerness. The heroes of Midwestern literature dream of escape, as George Willard dreamed of fleeing Winesburg, Ohio, or accept their lot, as Francesca does in The Bridges of Madison County. The Midwest lacks iconic events and places, like the Civil War or the OK Corral. Some scholarship exists on the individual states, but this only reinforces the balkanization of the Midwest and blocks our view of it as a region.

Cayton and two other editors recently published The American Midwest, a truly titanic (1,800 pages) encyclopedia on the Midwest, again put out by the invaluable Indiana University Press. But his two co-editors also were moonlighting from their day jobs teaching about medieval literature and Bangladesh.

“At no point in its history,” writes Cayton, “have either (the Midwest’s) residents or its critics developed a discourse of regionality. Which is, in the end, the major reason that Midwestern studies do not flourish.”

This isn’t good enough. As most Midwesterners know, our region is in a long-term economic and social slide, starting with the onset of the Rush Belt days 30 years ago, exacerbated now by globalization and the recession. Maybe we’ll recover. Maybe we won’t. But the fact is that the same problem is afflicting the entire region, for the simple reason that all the Midwest relies on heavy industry and it’s precisely this industry that has been wracked by the post-industrial, global economy. We rose as a region in the 19th century. We’re declining as a region. If we recover, it will be as a region. It’s way past time for some serious thought about what the Midwest, as a region, can do about this.

Which is where Monmouth comes in. Monmouth is a pretty college in Monmouth, Illinois, the smallest of the so-called Associated Colleges of the Midwest, which includes such schools as Knox, Grinnell, Carleton and St. Olaf’. All these schools bring in students from around the world, give them a first-rate undergrad education and then send them back into the world, without ever bringing them into much touch with the real world outside their ivied walls. Most, in fact, seem to regard themselves as intellectual outposts, not really Midwestern but as academic fortresses in the alien corn.

Monmouth’s president, Mauri Ditzler, has noted that once upon a time, “small Midwest colleges played a central role in preparing the leaders who developed the region.” Somewhere, that mission got lost. Now, Ditzler says, Monmouth wants to take this history and its own strengths in business and science and help its students “to see the Midwest with new eyes, appreciate its history, achievements and potential and embrace the challenge of helping to renew it.”

Don Capener is one of the professors leading this venture. He tells me that the new courses will include:

  • Links between science and entrepreneurialism, to spur local science-driven ventures.
  • The religious, social and economic history of the Midwest.
  • How transportation has defined the Midwest in the past, and will do so in the future.
  • How Midwestern communities are coping with immigration, using Monmouth itself as a lab.

Some of this will look at the Midwest as a whole. But Monmouth, sensibly, is focusing on its own backyard. It’s probably too small and too distant to do an in-depth job on Cleveland or Detroit. But it can still act regionally, by studying its bi-state region in western Illinois and eastern Iowa, crossing the Mississippi River to find out how this region holds together as a common civilization.

This is a start. Capener says the Monmouth faculty is working to propose other courses to expand this curriculum.

Any other takers?

The other Associated Colleges of the Midwest seem a logical place to start. So do the big state universities, if they can persuade their legislatures to permit studies that look outside state lines. Ohio is loaded with excellent small colleges, such as Wittenberg, Ohio Wesleyan and Kenyon that, like the colleges further west, seem to worry more about their national ranking than about the societies outside their gates. At one Ohio school, the University of Dayton, Bob Taft, the former Ohio governor, is starting a class on the Midwest and globalization.

I know that, all across the Midwest, good people are worrying about the same issues. They need help in thinking about these issues and where they fit into the Midwestern reality. If Midwesterners who are paid to think don’t do this thinking, then it won’t get done.

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