News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Sunday, September 9, 2012

It's the culture, damn it.

I've been gone a while making a circuit that involved some grueling driving to Denver, Casper, Helena (all but the eastern edge of Montana is under a blanket of smoke from wild fires) Medora, and home.  This involved visiting one of my new grandsons and his parents, some old friends, a relative undergoing chemotherapy, and a need to visit some old haunts.  

Smoke from wild fires cover the Montana mountains.
Early on in Denver, something went wrong with my laptop and it would not connect to the Internet.  That was troubling because just before I left on the trip, I assented to a request to write something relative to the rural revival and why young people leave South Dakota.  I had to borrow my son-in-law's computer for a couple of days to stay in contact with people for essential business.  And that meant that I did not have access to my personal e-mail account nor was I able to browse blogs and other web sites.  That disconnection was therapeutic.  It served to emphasize that the Internet, while intended and designed to facilitate communication, is more influential as a diversion and distraction to sound information and serious thought,  Both in content and primary concerns, it is a mire of mindless and petty squabbling and misinformation.  Being free of the Internet for a few weeks was like a remission from the flu or some other feverish disease.  But it was a reminder, too, how the culture of the small town cafe with its mindless and malicious gossip has become the culture of America,  largely propagated by the electronic media.  

Matthew Arnold, the British critic of culture, posited that the role of letters was to publish and record the best that is thought and said within the culture.  The Internet has become repository of the worst that is thought and written.  Some blogs are monuments to the petty and degenerate scurrility that forms the culture of dementia that comprises the intellectual level on which many Americans live.

But as I began this  trip thinking about why young people migrate and where they go to, I kept thinking about what I would be doing if I were 60 years younger.  It made me very conscious of the 20-somethings I encountered along the way and where they seemed to be headed.  In particular, I paid special notice to how the young people related to those around them, particularly the diversity of age and ethnicity.  I thought about what kind of decision I would make regarding college if I were facing it today.

As a retired professor, I am daunted by the cost of college.  If I were to attend my undergraduate institution, Augustana in Rock Island, Ill., I would be facing tuition and fees of $34,000 a year, excluding room and board.  I attended Augustana because I could live at home and its costs were manageable for someone who had to work.  That is not the case, today.  Today, my choice would probably be limited to Black Hawk College in Moline, a junior college, which when I entered college operated in the high school from which I graduated.  Today it has a sprawling campus of its own and the tuition and fees would amount to about $2,000 a semester for a resident.  Another choice not available when I was a student is a Moline campus of Western Illinois University, where the resident costs would be just under $5,000 a semester.  Augustana's $17,000 a semester eliminates it as a choice by comparison.

Facing the same situation where I now live, Aberdeen, would most  likely make my former employer, Northern State University, my only option.  Its tuition is about $125 a credit hour, but the fees add another $118 per credit hour for a total of $243.  A semester would cost just under $4,000 for a course  load of 16 hours.  The other choice in Aberdeen is Presentation College for which the block tuition for a semester is $7,900.  That is almost double the cost at Northern, but Northern has another factor.  Presentation has a rapid turnover of faculty with uncertain credentials while Northern has a faculty of tenured and credentialed professors with educations from reputable graduate schools.

King Center on the Auraria Campus
Another option is to move out of Aberdeen,  live and work in a place long enough to establish residency, and attend college there.  My daughter did that when she left Northern State, moved to Denver, and finished her degree at Metropolitan State Univeristy near downtown Denver.  Metro State is on the Auraria Campus which it shares with the University of Colorado Denver and  the Community College of Denver.  It has an enrollment of almost 24,000 students. A resident student's full-time tuition and fees is about $2,700 per semester.

On my visits to Metro and the Auraria Campus, I have found the campus invigorating.  Unlike many campuses today, it is bustling with student activity. The library is full of students and the campus mall teems with students pursuing their interests. I am always impressed with campuses where students are visibly (and often audibly) engaging their educations.  It inspires people to get to work and accomplish something.

As I was working on why students leave the rural areas, I was very much aware of the degree to which young people participate in the communities around them.  I find Denver a place which is not segregated by age.  But a place that struck me over how much 20 and 30-somethings are a powerful presence in community activities is Helena, Montana.  I noticed so many young people on the streets that I thought they must be college students roaming the town on Labor Day weekend.  Helena, a capitol city, has a population of about 28,000, just a bit bigger than Aberdeen, and like Aberdeen, has two colleges, Helena College, a community college part of the University of Montana system, and Caroll College, a Catholic institution.  The combined enrollments, however,  have about 3,000 students, and as I drove by them there was no sign of student life.  Colleges did not explain the visible presence of young people engaging in community life.

On Saturday morning, Helena blocks off two blocks of a main downtown street for a farmers' market.  As I was ask to cook a batch of ratatouille, I went in search of ingredients and found them all at the many food stalls interspersed among the crafts.  The three places I bought produce were all run by growers of Asian extraction, and I was informed that they are descendants of people who  came to work the mines and build the railroads and settled in the area.   At the farmers' market, there was an abundance of young people strolling through, stopping at market stalls, and visiting and chatting.  The people at this market were unusually eager to meet and learn about other people they encountered.  And while in Helena visiting my sister-in-law who is undergoing chemo-therapy, I was struck by the friends who kept dropping in to check on her and wish her well.  The genuine demonstration of concern and care was remarkable.  It contrasted with something I note in the Dakotas.  While the people boast of their friendliness and generosity, there is a forced and strained bonhomie that soon melts away and people start talking about others in malign ways.  Its in the culture.

Sign at Montana rest areas.
I have never gotten over the fact that people so readily speak ill of others.  Where I come from, there are those people who do, but most people realize that when someone so easily condemns other people, that person is probably doing the same thing to them.  And such people are best avoided.  In South Dakota, to see demonstrations of this obsessive malignity, one need only to read the comments on blog posts which allow them.   It's in the culture.  And it is used successfully to win elections. 

A few years ago, a small town in North Dakota recruited people to move to it.  Much ado was made about a family that moved from an urban area looking for a more peaceful, less stressful way of life, and the press printed accounts of the good will and neighborliness they said they found.  Within months, the family  packed up and left.  The accounts in the press were more restrained about their moving out, but the locals disapproved of these outlanders and could not accept them.  It's in the culture.

Some years back, the town of Ipswich found itself without a physician.  It made special provisions to support a clinic and recruited one from Chicago.  The press gave his glowing accounts about the efficacy and beneficence of small town life, but within the year, the physician was suddenly gone.  The press made no attempt to cover the reasons, but people I knew from the area said his family could not stand the small-mindedness and seething resentment that characterized town relationships.  It's in the culture.

As someone who is involved in the arts,  my circle of associations is largely among people who create things, grow things, and make things.  I suppose that explains the difference in people I encounter in Denver and in Helena.  People involved in creating, constructing, and nurturing cannot indulge in the destructive resentments that possess others.  It's in the sustaining culture.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that people move to the cultures that support their values.  And that seems to explain why life is so vigorous in some places and so barren in others.  It's the culture, damn it.


larry kurtz said...

Helena has done such an awe-inspiring job of preserving her historic structures even as deep winter inversions often make the Valley an icy, gloomy netherworld.

Encampments rather than fixedness seem the most genetically least until it's time to Thelma and Louise it into some bottomless arroyo.

All the best to you, Sir.

Michael Shay said...


I loved this:

"As someone who is involved in the arts, my circle of associations is largely among people who create things, grow things, and make things. I suppose that explains the difference in people I encounter in Denver and in Helena. People involved in creating, constructing, and nurturing cannot indulge in the destructive resentments that possess others. It's in the sustaining culture."

Agreed. That's been my experience too. People who are busy creating can't also be busily destroying.

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