Sometime late last year my step-daughter made her college decision. After two years of “I can’t wait to get as far away from this place as possible” peppered with thousands of passing references to “I’ve got to go to school out of the state,” she chose one of the nation’s most prestigious liberal arts universities.
She chose DePauw.
Had she not hinted for several weeks prior to the decision, I probably would have been surprised. But once her choice had congealed in our minds, we were happy for her. As a high school teacher here in Greencastle, I’ve watched dozens of local graduates go across town to DePauw, settle in quite well, and experience college as if they were attending a school situated on the other side of the country. I know several of the faculty personally, and I have even begun working with some of them on a couple of different projects—including work with this online magazine. DePauw has been an asset to the community, and it is beginning to prove itself an asset to me as I develop professionally.
Convincing everyone who lives here of that, however, can sometimes be a challenge.
You see, if you live in Greencastle—or any small college town—long enough, it’s going to happen. You’re going to run into that special brand of asshole. He can be the ordinary-looking, jogging every evening, rooting for the Pacers, throwing down an IPA type of asshole. Or he can be the asshole who teaches advanced interstellar communication and whose dissertation included a weekend spent opening temporal rifts in time and space with the late Carl Sagan. Or she can be the introverted, walking into the butcher shop with her face half-buried in Kant’s Metaphysics and Morals sort of asshole. Or he can be the university administrator who uncomfortably refuses to loan his grocery discount card to the lady who forgot hers in the neighboring aisle. It doesn’t matter if their outward hostility is intentional or accidental. To those of us who live here it comes off as the seething condescension of someone feeling cursed that he has to share his life with these “little people.” The impressions these few make are too often the impressions that linger among the “townies” who live outside of campus for the rest of their lives.
DePauw is not the problem. It never has been. If we’re going to talk about what the problem really is, then we have to revisit that old conversation about the late-1980’s departure of IBM. When the economic world yanked those rugs of job security and living wages out from under us, we turned our rage to those who were still doing okay. This made DePauw an easy target.
And once those attitudes are seared into the brain, they don’t come out, no matter what real-world positive impact the local colleges brings to the community. Contribute to new businesses which revitalize the city’s courthouse square? Doesn’t matter. Work with the city to refurbish entire streets and enhance the physical improvement of the city’s downtown? So what. Continually add to the cultural and economic atmosphere of the community? Once the negative association is cemented, nothing changes it.
And that’s too bad.
Because in the case of Greencastle, DePauw is not the problem. I would venture that the same can be said of Earlham to Richmond, of Wabash to Crawfordsville, of Hanover to Madison, to all those sister schools to their adjoined small towns.
Furthermore, the university not only offers the city a great deal in terms of economic and cultural benefit, but most of the people who work there are involved community members who bring national and world experiences beyond the Midwest. Among my own personal friendships with university staffers, I find them to be polite, engaging, and able to talk about everything from the minutiae of daily public education to the artistic merits of Star Wars and the French horn. In other words, they’re fun to hang out with and talk to.
If you need a concrete example of how DePauw benefits the community, I have one. As part of my duties teaching college-bound seniors, I have the burden and benefit of trying to prepare them for the lives they will experience at their respective schools and universities after they leave. That’s not easy, but for years I have done my best. Gradually, however, my thoughts kept lingering to that college at the other end of Washington Street. We have a full-fledged university on the other side of town: Why weren’t we using it to help prepare these kids for college? When I approached the school for help, I wasn’t sure what response I would get. Like I said at the beginning…all those petty, anecdotal grudges still creeping into my head.
That response has been overwhelmingly supportive. Dr. Harry Brown, the English department chairperson, has been inundated by colleagues more than willing to lead workshops, run discussion sessions, and do whatever they can to help. We’re in a position to set up a long-term program which will help our outgoing graduates get a leg-up on the transition to college process. And this is notwithstanding the university’s long-running “Alpha Program” which for years has allowed and encouraged bright young students to actually attend DPU classes as active students. Another example is Dr. Kent Menzel, who passionately dedicates his time coaching the local high school swim teams. He leads through an eclectic brand of aggressive encouragement, has stood out as a positive role model for hundreds of local young people, and does all of that for reasons far nobler than the tiny stipend most high school coaches receive. The truth is that, when you simply walk over the campus and ask someone for help, the vast majority of people who work there want to do just that.
So DePauw, to reiterate, is not the problem. It never has been. If we’re going to talk about what the problem really is, then we have to revisit that old conversation about the late-1980’s departure of IBM. This town is full of people who still insist that trading upper-middle class salaries for $10-an-hour jobs is somehow better (and I always politely nod my head when they do), but such claims are always bullshit. Frankly, I don’t know that the city can do much to fix the issue, either. IBM’s contraction, and Greencastle’s transformation, directly correlates to the expansion of Global Economic Theory which is now the staple model running our nation’s business sector.
For very basic psychological reasons, when the economic world yanked those rugs of job security and living wages out from under us, we turned our rage to those who were still doing okay. This made DePauw an easy target.
So, if you resent the university because one or two people rubbed you the wrong way, don’t take out that bitterness on the school as a whole. Assholes are in abundant supply, and they’re not exclusive to robe-wearing academics or 20-somethings from Chicago’s north side. Those are perceptions. Easy to ignore. What’s left is reality. My reality is that DePauw is offering its time and resources to help my high school students get prepared for what’s ahead of them, and it’s also going to provide my step-daughter with a quality education she can carry with her for the rest of her life. And all of it sits but a three-minute drive away.
That’s not a problem. It’s a solution.