At college, gaining the world but losing a home

As the cost of college continues to rise, the value of a college education, considered economically, will undergo greater scrutiny. While college graduates provide the state with more specialized labor, and make more money than non-graduates, some of these benefits are more than offset by one of its hidden costs: the fracturing of families.

Most institutions of higher learning like to see themselves serving broad multi-state and international constituencies. Drawing students from "all over" is often a point of pride. While there are some benefits to this approach, there are also profound costs, for such drawing deepens forms of deracination whose greatest beneficiaries are centralized powers, be they political or economic.

In the process, our colleges become "placeless." A geographically diverse academic enterprise doesn't commit itself to a concrete, embodied community, but directs its attention to an abstract "global society" that is no place at all. It thins the sense of moral obligation, substituting sentimental humanitarianism for the difficult virtues associated with neighborliness.

Most schools have elevated such sentimentalism into an orthodoxy. Martha Nussbaum's important work “Cultivating Humanity” became a standard defense of such principles, arguing that education ought to be geared toward global engagement and should intentionally erode local attachments, which because of their particularity become a source of division and strife. Her approach promulgated a cognitive "scorched earth" policy that erased from student's allegiances parental teaching and preferences.

One result is a widespread uprooting of students not only through their college years, but in the years after as well. States such as Michigan, suffering depressed labor markets, tend to experience a resultant brain drain as graduates move elsewhere looking for employment. A study commissioned by the Detroit Regional Chamber found that 37% of in-state college graduates were leave the state for greener pastures. The Michigan Economic and Workforce Indicators report indicates Michigan leads Midwestern states in losing college graduates.

"Despite the fact," the report says, "that U.S. mobility is at its lowest point since World War II, young, highly educated Michiganders continued to migrate out of the state in 2010, with the out-flow actually picking up pace since the prior year."

Political leaders, committed as they are to the view that all political problems are economic problems, will bemoan this loss, but do nothing to address the root causes connected to the wage-labor system or to an educational system dedicate to upward mobility. They will not see that, as Wendell Berry put it, the way up is ultimately the way out, and such a way will lead to the erosion of healthy communities. The impulse is to have students go to a better place, not make where they are a better place. The more rootless a person, the more they can be exploited in a system of centralized control.

Considering only the economic costs would be a failure of imagination. The social costs are much higher. Every year I witness parents go through gut-wrenching separation while dropping their children off at college, recognizing they have made it likely they'll never again live in the same town as their children. These children leave home behind, encouraged to seek something bigger and better, and in the process lose their connection with the most vital things in life.

For parents, the slow process of separation is a kind of amputation, an acceleration of the long letting go that begins the minute we take them to school and put them under someone else's tutelage. In some sense this is fitting and right. But the pain of loss is not mitigated by recourse to tropes about "emancipation” which see dissociation as the path to maturity and independence.

The costs pile up over time. Children are separated from parents and friends; after graduation they are separated again from the relationships they formed in those four years. Once they have children, those children are separated from the unconditional love of their grandparents, who are reduced to interlopers in an increasingly narrowed familial life, placing more pressures on these declining units, making them more fragile still. This widespread alienation - the loss of community and disconnectedness - are the defining features of our social life, and our colleges contribute mightily to this.

Better that Michigan colleges focus more on the needs of Michigan and less on those of the so-called global community. Freedom requires a deep associative life and is undermined by a stretching which holds individual achievement to be the highest good.

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Sat, 11/02/2013 - 9:48am
The "global society" that seems abstract to Professor Polet is not so to students and professionals who understand that technology transcends borders, creates opportunities and flattens the world. "The so-called global community" is a reality academia, corporations and learners embrace because there's nothing so-called about it. This cry to value "a deep associative life" seems like a call for provincialism: How are we going to keep 'em in Holland once they've studied abroad or with foreign classmates? At least Professor Polet stops short of saying he wants "my country back."
William Harris
Sun, 11/03/2013 - 1:17am
First, how odd for a professor at a nationally ranked college to be asking for more localism. The entire premise of such institutions is the fledging of graduates out into the world (and to underscore this, Hope is highly successful in this very activity). The essay is a bit confusing, since we have concerns about the departure of these college graduates (however the numbers staying are actually up); we have concerns about the global education philosophy, and then a concern about the impact on families. One may reasonably ask if these are actually connected phenomena. Take the departure of these college graduates. Of the thirty-five percent that leave, most end up in Illinois or California (Chicago or LA) -- really not surprising. Then consider that they are also more likely to be employed full-time and be earning better -- how does this play with the parental concern? Please Johnny stay home, work part time and turn down the 80k they're offering? Rather than look to philosophy of "global education" the reason for departure may be one of the oldest in the book: money. Secondly, this question of college grads (and their philosophy) rests on the uncomfortable question of class. Are the 65 percent who stay really representing broken families? The data from the Detroit Chamber suggest that this population is rather evenly spread out through the state; most are living close to home. The role of social class also asserts itself in the schools students and their families are willing to consider. We've seen national studies indicating that high achieving students from poverty backgrounds are less likely to choose the elite or high achieving school. Why? For family reasons. The concerns that Polet brings are those for a rather narrow segment, roughly the top income quintile. I would suggest that the problem is less that of a talent drain than an under-utilization of the talent we do have.
Sun, 11/03/2013 - 6:18am
Not all schools are ignoring their Michigan backyard. I am the director of the Gerald Ford Institute for Leadership in Public Policy and Service at Albion College. The more than 100 students who are part of our institute are constantly being encouraged to be involved in their local communities, whether that community is defined as the city of Albion, the city where they grew up, or the state of Michigan as a whole. And, to their credit, our students respond, logging more than 1,200 hours of volunteer service each semester. Our curriculum includes emphases on engaging with and improving the city of Albion as well as making students aware of the many positive things happening across the city of Detroit. Many students volunteer in Albion schools and with several local nonprofits. In October, 25 of our students spent a full Saturday volunteering at Cass Community Services in Detroit, and in January, 20 of our sophomores will spend a week in the Motor City meeting with community leaders from neighborhoods, nonprofits, business and the media. Our internships - which certainly include global opportunities - also include opportunities to work all over Michigan, including with the legislature in Lansing and with the MEDC. We are currently exploring the development of an internship program that will place our students with city managers across the state. More than half of our Ford Institute students will stay in Michigan after graduation. We work to instill in all of our graduates a pride in their home state and for those interested in working to improve Michigan, we offer countless opportunities to make that their life´s work. Not all of us in academia push our students out of the state. We here at Albion recognize how wonderful our state is and we view the improvement of our cities and our state as a tremendous set of opportunities for our students.
Thomas Butler
Sun, 11/03/2013 - 8:16pm
I find it bizarre that two of the three comments posted here are so viscerally hostile. If the proposition that the good of remaining faithful one's natural community might actually trump some other good is so completely incomprehensible that these readers cannot even take it seriously, then I suspect our civilization is indeed lost. In that case, the world IS indeed flat, as the first commentator observes, in the sense of having been scraped smooth and cleared of all meaning and purpose. I can well imagine reluctantly sending my own children far away, if that were the price of flourishing in all other respects, or of survival. But an "amputation" it would indeed be. The parent who would make such departure an deliberate part of the "fledging" of his children is one who may love his children but does not love his family.
William Harris
Tue, 11/05/2013 - 12:56am
I'm all for being faithful to one's community, but let's not blind ourselves to the facts, either. First, far from increasing, the actual portion of young adults staying in the state has increased. This pattern is only reinforced by the pattern of interstate migration: only 1.7 percent moved last year, half of the rate of the 1950s. This hardly sounds like the abandonment of the homestead so feared by the romantic conservative. Second, speaking of the homestead, we are also unstable as to our homes. Gone -- long gone -- are the days when we stayed close to the family manse in Mecosta, so to speak. My family's northern homestead, for instance, is now buried under a golf course. Born in a tract home, must I then stay in that same tract home, that same sprawled suburb? What is the place we are to count as our proper home, our community? The question of place brings the third objection to such conservative romanticism: to have a place that our children want to return to, we must necessarily work to make the communities themselves attractive. When state government can not fund its roads, refuses to build its bridges, considers selling its artistic patrimony, or weakens environmental protections and overturns voters intentions -- is that a state properly becoming more attractive? If we want a place for our children, we necessarily must commit to the actions of developing that place, of improving the lives of our citizens and communities. The fault finally with filial piety is not its sentiment, but its blindness to (or worse its refusal to accept) the necessary work of good politics.
Sun, 11/03/2013 - 8:19pm
Mr. Polet seems to failed to learn from our history. He seems to ignore that this country was built on mobility, it is part of our culture. Those in Michigan Mr. Polet wants to protect only a few generation ago were immigrants to Michigan. Detroit and its surroundings were built by children moving from elsewhere. Mr. Polet appears is to be condemning those children who established the families here for moving to Michigan. Mr. Polet seems to want cultural and ideological segregation when he challenges the diversity in colleges. He seems to be against the betterment of people’s lives by the competition of ideas and cultures. Such segregation can only be justified out of fear of freedom/diversity of ideas. Mr. Polet seems to feel that state boundaries should become physical barriers preventing children leaving, much like East Germany did with the Berlin Wall. I wonder, would Mr. Polet want to extend such barriers to in State, erecting them where regional cultural differ, in counties between rural and cities, within communities where there are micro cultures. Does Mr. Polet want to place tighter restriction so children have to live on the same street? When does he allow freedom of choice to the children and the families they want to establish?
Mon, 11/04/2013 - 8:51am
Nobody should feel guilty about leaving Michigan and laying down roots somewhere else, whether it is for a job or any other reason. You don't have to be physically close to your relatives, with Skype, email etc. it is possible to have almost continuous communication with nearly everyone these days if you really want it. My two sisters left Michigan after college decades ago and are now live in Massachusetts and Florida. I have no problem with it.
Mon, 11/04/2013 - 10:12pm
An interesting and different point of view. The problem is not when the first generation leaves home, but the second. Birthdays and holidays are missed. Cousins are in different cities or countries. When children of those children who left home leave home, it will really be sad. It is something they haven't considered.
Thu, 11/14/2013 - 11:50pm
I grew up in a beautiful resort town in West Michigan. My family lived there for generations. I felt a part of something important living there. I felt like the community cared about my family. I felt that if something happened, good or bad, that I would have support and encouragement from my little town. I felt safe and happy there. I went away to college and got a job far from home because my parents told me that successful people move away from their hometown. I have regretted it since the moment I left but felt I couldn't return because my parents would think I was a failure. I have been in mourning for my sweet little community ever since. I wish that I had listened to my heart and stayed or at least moved back after college. I now live in a big city far away, I don't feel a sense of community at all. I feel like everyone is out for themselves and no one cares what happens to me, good or bad. My husband has a job here that he likes and my kids have put down roots. But I miss being a part of something as magical as a place that had known generations of my family members and I miss feeling like a whole town cares about what happens to me and my family. I feel like I am lost at sea.
robert m. peters
Sat, 11/23/2013 - 12:46am
Mr. Stamm, perhaps we should have the capacity to apprehend that global technology which transcends borders, creates opportunities and flattens the world might not be a good thing. Mr. Stamm, the fact that the academy and corporations get learners to embrace the global community does not make it any less abstract, nor does it make such an enterprise worthy. A man can no more embrace a global community than he can love all other men. Mr. Stamm seems to have some disdain of the provinces. The Jacobins did not like the provinces either. Mr. Stamm is also no little condescending about those who might "want their country back." What is behind that condescension? Mr. Harris, have you ever considered that the fledging of graduates out into the world being the entire premise of such institutions is simply wrong headed? Why is that an worthy enterprise? Even most birds, since you allude to the bird metaphor, maintain a strong since of community and communion, even in migration. If birds were to confuse migration with globalization, i.e. every bird flying off to somewhere by himself, that race of creatures would go extinct. Even the cuckoo, the closest bird to your globalizing metaphor, would fail as a parasite on his kinsmen if they, too, simply laid and flew. Mr. ***, you seem to confuse "communication" with "communion." The decay has indeed gone far when one actually believes that social networking with technology replaces the intimate communion of family and friends. Duane, while I am not sure that we any longer have a country built on any shared set of traditions, customs and habits, it was not built on mobility, i.e. moving hither, thither and yon as the breeze or the job opportunity may blow one, but on migration and settlement, migration and settlement of bands of kinsmen, through blood, marriage or friendship, spilling out of the palisades of Jamestown, Wilmington, Charleston, Savannah, St. Augustine and other points of departure and taking with them the synthesis of Celtic, Roman, Saxon and Norman traditions, customs and habits and transplanting them in a new idiom further west in the wilderness to Alabama, then to Louisiana, then to Texas and beyond. This they did from 1607 into the 19th century. Your mobility is likely in the final analysis utterly destructive to that which they planted and nurtured.
Mon, 11/25/2013 - 2:34pm
I am a Hope College senior from the West Coast, having made the migration that Dr. Polet is criticizing to come to Hope. I also spent a semester abroad. It has been one of the hardest and one of the best things that I have ever done. This will be the fourth Thanksgiving that I haven't spent with my family, yet it's also the fourth year that a friend's family will welcome me in with open arms. While many of my friends have the option of going home on weekends and having their parents come to campus for performances or events, I don't have that. My friends at Hope, the adults that I know in the community and my church in my Holland are my family while I'm here. I have learned to make my home in dorm rooms and college apartments, in worshiping in Dimnent chapel, with the people that I value, and most of all in Christ. This independence has not always come easily, but I have learned to rely first and foremost on God. I know that there are times when I think that my heart is going to break more than I can bear, to have to say goodbye again. I'm considering doing overseas missions work in the future, and I know that this transient kind of community is exactly like the mission field. I grew up in a military town, and this is exactly how life is in that community as well. Some people never live more than a few hours from their families, and that is beautiful, yet I would not be the person I am today without the experiences that I have had around the country and around the world. There is nothing that has grown me more. I love being at home with my family, but I know that I can find home wherever God decides to put me. What I have felt in being from out of state doesn't even compare to international students and missionary kids who leave their homes for years at a time to come to college in the States. It would be nice if schools as wonderful at Hope were in everyone's hometown, but that isn't the reality. Leaving gives a student the chance to expand their worldview, and define themselves as they are placed in a different culture (yes the West Coast and West Michigan are completely different culturally). I haven't appreciated my hometown more than when I left it, and I see it with different eyes having lived somewhere else. Missing these opportunities is to miss opportunities to grow and develop a richer worldview, to be better able to serve one's community where they are- whether it is where they were raised or not.