I’m coming late to Stephen G. Bloom’s “Observations from 20 Years of Iowa Life,” in the December Atlantic Monthly. (Thanks to Iowahawk – and for being Iowahawk.) A fly-over person, I remain surprised (so repeated rants here) by the insularity of people who after twenty years don’t enjoy the eccentricities of whatever culture they’ve been dropped in. Sometimes true of immigrants, it’s as often the experience of coastal people in the midwest.
I’m not from Iowa and Iowans can defend themselves. Some people do not view other’s religious beliefs as affronts to their own, for instance. I would like, however, to make two minor points. The first is what kind of journalism professor (and one with visiting gigs to more impressive schools) writes articles requiring the closely packed concluding two paragraphs of “Corrections” either he or the Atlantic Monthly felt the need to add. Those of us who dabble in personal narratives often make mistakes – I’m as prone as the next. But, this was not a casual blog post, rather it’s a lengthy essay on an edited site. (For instance, he was probably paid.) And those corrections are an interesting window into Bloom’s mind – of what he is sure he knows, of how he teaches.
The second is his argument that the mid-west has always been homogeneous. Of course, Iowans import Chinese students:
Few speak passable English, almost all congregate in majors that require little English (math, biology and actuarial science), and many drive around town in brand-new sports cars. It’s a strange sight to see in Flyover County — dozens of Chinese students moving together en masse, the girls chattering away in Mandarin, always holding each others’ hands. These wealthy, ill-prepared bonus babies are seen as the future of the University. If Iowa has fewer and fewer young people each year to fill the University’s cavernous lecture halls, and the state is still a tough sell to coastal American kids, then it’s China that’s the next frontier as state support for higher education dwindles.
I can sympathize – grading papers by non-native speaking students is seldom easy. My husband (a fly-over boy if there ever was one) has spent the last dozen years editing a scholarly journal in which many contributors are not native speakers. He has felt exhilarated about the communication across international lines as much as frustrated by the problems such work entails. But it is work. Again, Bloom hardly embraces his responsibilities, as journalist or teacher.
Difficulty in understanding the “other” is human nature. Still, he seems unaware that fly-over country accepted and assimilated large groups of immigrants for well over a century. In 1870, for instance, 25% of Nebraskans (a neighboring state) had been born in another country, although the large waves of groups coming to homestead on the plains was during the 50 years that followed. I grew up in a town of 500; my father said you could hear 3 or 4 languages being spoken on main street in the thirties. Fly-over country assimilated polyglot immigrant groups at the beginning of the century so well it was snarked at as too homogeneous by its end. Now, of course, the groups are different – the Hmong, the Somali, the Bosnians.
One of my brother’s roommates was from Pakistan. A sophisticated urban colleague chose to raise her children in a small north Texas town; her anecdotes describe the pleasure she got from its customs. She now finds herself with a jet-setting German Syrian son-in-law, whose grandfather had been killed by the late and unlamented Assad, senior. My husband and his cousins grew up in a town of 3000; one married a Chinese girl he met in dental college and another a Vietnamese girl he met in film school. Our daughter married a German, another is dating a Nebraskan/Thai from another American village. In fly-over country, work is important and ethnicity interesting, something to celebrate and enjoy. No, we don’t live isolated lives.
I wouldn’t mind the average academic’s xenophobia if proof of it weren’t almost immediately followed by remarks on other’s parochialism. My husband’s colleague, who clearly felt this cow college beneath him, was surprised at an opened book on my husband’s desk – it wasn’t in English. (And my children, my friend’s daughter, others who grew up in this great wasteland can handle several languages each.) Later, he mentioned how sad must be the lives of those in my husband’s (and his cousins’) home town. A renter who didn’t believe in paying rent proudly announced he was from Manhattan. Generally fed up, I asked if he meant New York or Kansas. My point, of course, was his parochialism, but I’m pretty sure it was lost on him.
Or was it? We all indulge in projection and often it is defensive; I find myself doing it, why should I blame others? But a sense of humor, a little more curiosity might make those like Bloom not only more knowledgeable but happier. A stronger sense of what motivates and brings pleasure to the people around you – after twenty years for God’s sake – might perfect a different tone but also develop sympathies. Bloom believes Obama’s statement about fly-over country was truthful, but surely he could understand why some might not see it that way. And he might give them credit for a deeper theology than some who dismiss others so easily. Certainly, the attitude toward religion of some of my husband’s colleagues borders on the bizarre (one said my husband was different from other believers – they thought, he said, that God was a bearded guy in the sky). Bloom apparently sees a “white” blob – even if his understanding is not statistically accurate. The state that (it would seem to me to its everlasting shame) catapulted the first African-American president to the front of the primaries might be given props for its choice not to see the world through a racial prism. That the man they voted for (as well as one they hired to teach their children) does is not a sign of their narrowness but rather his.