If it is impossible to understand a place completely without having lived there, then I guess I know the Midwest and not much else. Sure, I've moved around, but mostly around the region. This hasn't been intentional. It's a matter of where my academic and professional opportunities have been. Now that I teach here, there are a lot of frustrating reminders of one of the worst things about Midwesterners: being modest to a fault, and screwing themselves in the process. We aim low for the same reasons we buy shitty American cars even when we can afford better ones: because nothing is worse than being cocky. If we don't revel in mediocrity, our friends and neighbors are more than happy to knock us down a peg.

One thing I like about my current job is doing advising. Many schools have dedicated advising staff, but this way the faculty and students get to know one another a little better. It is, however, endlessly frustrating to try to get students to expand their worldview beyond central Illinois. As I have told them many times, the biggest difference between them and students at a fancy name brand East Coast university is not intelligence but ambition. Given equivalent academic skills, the student from Williams or Villanova or NYU wants to move to The City and be a big shot; my students want to move back home. Those students want to go to law school or to get a Master's and they aim for Ivy League schools; mine apply to unranked programs "close to home", i.e. in the middle of nowhere. It's not a question of resources, either, as the people I deal with are more than average in that area. It's the fact that no one has encouraged them to do anything for their entire lives except to live At Home. Aiming high to them means getting a middling law degree and then moving back home to work at the county courthouse on the square.

If that's the life people want for themselves, then that's great. More often I get the feeling that it's less the life they want than it is the only life they can conceive of, which isn't great. Maybe I can't explain this well enough to make sense to anyone else, but it's hard to hear the same excuses I've made all my life: it's too expensive, it's too far away, I'm not good enough for that. Is going to law school at Stanford or Harvard expensive? Sure is. But for that price you get to do whatever the hell you want for the rest of your life while getting paid well to do it. Which is, you know, a pretty good trade off.

It's not rare for college-aged people to be lacking in life experience and limited in worldview, so in that sense there's very little unique about my experiences. I simply never expected to be in the position of having to inflate their expectations. I assumed they'd all be aiming too high and I'd end up having to talk them down to something more realistic. This is a weird issue for me because more than anything I wish someone would have encouraged me to aim a little higher when I was younger, so I don't doubt that I'm projecting a little. Most of all, though, I want students to give themselves options so that whatever life they end up with does not make them feel trapped.

We tend to dislike people from the coasts for being egotistical and full of themselves, but honestly we would benefit from taking a page out of that playbook once in a while. In grad school a professor explained to me and my cohort that one of the reasons we (public school kids) have a hard time competing with the Ivy League kids is that they've spent their whole lives learning how to talk about how great they are and we've spent our lives downplaying and underselling anything that makes us stand out. It's not a difference in ability – although that factors in as well – it's a difference in attitude. It took a while to appreciate just how right he was.


Here's a screenshot I grabbed from CNN early last week. See if you notice anything odd.


Take a look at the secondary stories in the column on the left. You know, the "Kinda important but not too important" list. Halfway down, beneath the story about a zookeeper who got eaten by a tiger, we have two separate incidents with a total of 13 people shot dead.

What can you say anymore about a country in which eight and five people being shot to death almost simultaneously is barely news. We're so used to it, it is the background radiation of living in the U.S. We long ago passed the point of caring; now we're not even noticing.