The impact of the collapse of Michigan’s auto-driven economy keeps rolling in. As Ron French reports in The Detroit News, our state suffered a net loss of 109,000 last year, and many (most) of them were the college-educated we need. Half of all graduates from Michigan’s public universities leave the state within a year after graduation.
Obviously, sending away your college educated is sending away your future. But it also changes the chemistry of our public life. Fewer college graduates means fewer champions for arts or for schools. The skepticism to education first borne from the auto era when low skilled paid big wages — this skepticism dogs our efforts to find the will to raise money for education. And of course, as attitudes resistant to the arts, resistant to education take hold, these same values only push more graduates to leave.
This changed chemistry can already be seen in the Governor’s proposal to cut funding for the arts in our State. This is rather like the absentee homeowner who decides not to rake the leaves or cut the grass. The action is itself a small testimony of despair, a dullness to the future.
But if the state does not have the resources for culture, who does?
Here, we come back to the Windmill. The struggle for Michigan’s future will fall on the shoulders of the civic stakeholders — the key foundations, the chambers, the civic leadership — and on the colleges. These latter are the custodians of our cultural life and increasingly the building blocks for regional prosperity. The reality is that Dutch and the Christian Reformed in particular have had an ambiguous attitude to this civic leadership role. The path previously had been to adopt the practice of verzuiling or pillarization — the formation of separate, parallel institutions to those of the general society, most notably in their schools, but to a lesser extent in labor, business, and often in politics (aka the “windmill”).
Some steps forward have already been taken, specifically in the development of the Avenue of the Arts — largely the vision of Dwelling Place Inc., the move downtown of Calvin’s Art Department, and the college’s acquisition of the Ladies Literary Club. In this same regard, the expanding footprint of Grand Valley downtown also contributes to a growing arts community. Yet more can, indeed ought to be done. To date, the Festival of Writing and the Festival of Music have largely taken place to national acclaim within the college; leveraging these events regionally offers other opportunities. These are some of the steps that can make the region “sticky” for the young professionals it needs to thrive.
As Phil Powers recently wrote,
But at the end of the day, Michigan’s attractiveness to young people will define the number of college grads who stay. This has as much to do with the quality – and affordability – of life here in Michigan. So our woods and waters, our arts and culture, our cities and our universities are all vital in the competition for brains.