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Longworth: Midwest Failing to Globalize

Mr. Richard Longworth is a senior fellow at Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a veteran foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. After a distinctive journalism career for 20 years, he returned to the Midwest and has made great efforts to examine the challenges of globalization on the region. His talk in the Convocation on Thursday addressed how the Midwest should face the challenges in the age of globalization. Longworth sat down with S&B reporter Liyan Chen.

With the experience of reporting around the world for 20 years, how do you look at the Midwest differently? What kind of perspective did your international journalism bring to you?

Compare it to other societies—that’s what you can do. I have lived in other cities, where ancient cities and societies had to reinvent themselves. Every place is founded for some sort of economic reasons: ports, mining towns, factories towns. That’s the economic reason why the city is there in the first place. And after a while this changes. It always changes. Trade goes away. Farms consolidate. And when that happens, the place has to reinvent itself if it is going to survive. When Newton was founded, it was a Maytag town, and Maytag has gone away. Newton, if it is going to survive, has to reinvent itself. Well, the Midwest is going through this for the first time. We have been farming in the past hundred of years. Now we have to reinvent ourselves. I have seen this happen in other societies. I have seen other cities that had to do this 10 or 20 times. I just know that you have to do this, not just slide away into the back water.

You mentioned in your book that the Midwest is failing the challenge of globalization. Could you tell us about your observations as well as the solutions that you propose?

We have been living on the invention from one hundred years ago for the past hundred years. All the great ideas from Fredrick Maytag, John Deere, Henry Ford, built this incredible economy and civilization that we had here. And now that’s going away and all is under challenge from globalization. What we do, especially the routine manufacturing, has gone into the global economy. It’s not going to be done here anymore. This is a terrific challenge to our economy. No, we are not doing a very good job of it. Isolated cities are doing OK—Chicago is doing fine; Minneapolis is doing OK; Des Moines is beginning to come back. But we haven’t yet figured out what we are going to do for a living now. And we have to do it—that’s the challenge. How can we get good jobs? How can we keep smart young people here? How can we provide a good standard of living? We have not figured that out.

You’ve got to get jobs. Jobs are the whole thing. People are going to stay only if there are good jobs out there. College students are only going to come back if there are good jobs for them to come back to—jobs that make them use their head. There’s a lot of talk about making towns attractive by building parks, bars, coffee shops—these are all parts of it. But basically you have to have good jobs here—jobs that use your skills and education; jobs that pay decent wage; and jobs that help to create a decent society. Obviously that leads to the question: what kinds of jobs are we talking about? Service jobs? Are we going to recreate manufacturing? Is this going to tie to agriculture, bioscience or green energy? This is the debate right now. I wish I could give a recipe, but I can’t. A lot of people all across the Midwest—not just here, but in Ohio and in Michigan— are debating about this issue: how can we recreate the society?

What does the heartland mean to you? What does the Midwest mean to you?

First off, it is really hard to define. I was talking to a woman this morning—she didn’t think that Ohio is a part of the Midwest. But I do. It is kind of a squishy concept—everyone knows where the South is; everyone knows where New England is. But the Midwest? I say, economically, it is the part of our country that has always done two big things for living, which are heavy industry and intensive agriculture. This is the traditional breadbasket of the United States. Secondly, it was originally founded by a wave of immigration, mostly from Northern Europe and from North England. Catholic and protestant. Certain outlook on life. Hard-working. Devoted to education. Religious. Very serious. Little dull, sometimes. That’s who we are. Since then, we have taken people from all around the world, mostly the great migration from the South from World War I on. And of course, we have tremendous wave of Hispanic immigrations.
Basically here is the Midwest character—it is steady, hardworking, serious, real beliefs in education, beliefs in community, not very imaginative sometimes. Not like California where everybody gets new ideas. We get something and we stick with it. We like the steady turning of the seasons. We work hard. We don’t handle change very well.

Do you think such character affects how we deal with the challenges right now?

Absolutely. We got people who used to work for Maytag saying: “We did a good job. I showed up every morning. I did what I was supposed to do. Now they take my job and I do not understand it.” Out west in California, people say: “Now the job is gone—what are we going to do?” Here we say: “There’s the job gone and now I am going to dig the grave and jump in.” It is a lack of imagination.
Now you go back to these early guys— Maytag, Deere and Ford—they had great imagination and they were Midwesterners. Somewhere along the line we lost that. We need a shock. I wrote the book as a wake-up call. I want it to hit them over their head and say: “Hey folks, we got a problem.” And shortly after the book came out, the recession came. I think people have realized now. People have realized that the time is different.

Finally, how do you perceive the role of Grinnell College and its students in the time when Midwest is facing big challenge?

Too many colleges exist as some sort of intellectual island without much connection to the surrounding towns. I see this in a lot of colleges around the Midwest. How can we give students a stake in the towns so that they would want to stay and use the terrific education that they are getting here to work for the area? How much does Grinnell use the town and the surrounding territory as a laboratory? What you’ve got here is a whole society, absolutely influx, absolutely changing. Until recently, there was no college or university in the entire Midwest that even taught one class on the Midwest. My point is that we are a definable region, like the South, that we have a common history and a common economy. There is no attempt being made to understand the Midwest as a region. Just recently, Monmouth College has set up a center for Global Midwest Studies but they are the only one. I would say that for Grinnell to get more involved with Grinnell, the Poweshiek County and the Midwest is to study it.

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