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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Becoming native to this place: digging into the culture of Grinnell

This year the college is celebrating its 150 year in the town of Grinnell. Although the town and college have become so intertwined over that century and a half, it is still possible to think that Grinnell sits apart from the town, or apart from the part of Iowa that it occupies. Over my time at Grinnell College, I have noticed the sentiment among some that the town of Grinnell is more or less extraneous to the college. Grinnell College just happens to be in Grinnell, in Iowa, but its not really of Grinnell, or of Iowa. That’s one meaning of the old expression “the Grinnell bubble.”

It is not just that the Grinnell environment is insulated against the “real world” (I’ve always thought this was a surprisingly uncritical dichotomy for critically thinking Grinnell students to maintain), it also means we can be insulated from our immediate location—the town, the land around us, the local culture and people. I think knowing this place beyond the 120 acres of campus and beyond the 1500 students here is as important as the education we receive or the relationships we make here.

In many parts of the country, including Connecticut, where I grew up, Iowa is a symbol for the quotidian and the homogenous, for boredom and flatness. The character of Iowa and its importance and connection with the rest of the country and the world are lost when viewed from that distorted distance. I think students who come to Grinnell invariably learn that Iowa is more than the stereotype of endless corn fields and “hick” farmers. What I hope, though, is that beyond breaking this stereotype, we can begin to form an appreciation and intimacy with this place—that in certain way we can become natives to this place rather than just passers through.

Most of us are passing through, though. Most of us are here for four years, less if you take away the long summer and winter breaks. But the process of becoming native doesn’t necessarily have to exclude us. While many of us will leave after graduating, learning about and engaging in this place, whether we decide to leave or not, can teach us to be a part of any place. I remember telling my tutorial class three years ago how I felt like a tree that just begun to put down roots, only to be uprooted and hastily transplanted to Iowa. I remember the sense of rawness and dislocation I had over leaving a place I had come to love, a small town in rural northwestern Connecticut, and moving halfway across the country to a bigger small town in the Midwest. The process of finding a home again in Grinnell and learning about a whole new place has taught me the meaningfulness and necessity of that process for our own well-being in addition to the well-being of communities.

“Becoming native to this place” are not my words. They are the title of a book by Wes Jackson, the founder of the Land Institute in Kansas and a well-known activist for a new form of sustainable agriculture. Jackson writes that his book is meant to be “a challenge to the universities to stop and think about what they are doing with young men and women.” He writes that universities “offer only one serious major: upward mobility. Little attention is paid to educating the young to return home, or to go some other place, and dig in. There is no such thing as a ‘homecoming’ major.” I think Grinnell College, with the Center for Prairie Studies and other efforts, has shown that there is a group of people here who are not ignorant of place and its importance, and while there may be no “homecoming” major, we are offered a lot of opportunities to “dig” into this community and its surroundings. I hope with this column to provide some of those opportunities, to write about issues relevant to Grinnell and Iowa in a way that will help make us more aware of this place and our part in it.

-Jordan Scheibel ’10

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