Jeremy Beer has masterfully articulated the ideology of meritocracy and the destruction it wreaks upon the small towns and non-major cities of the nation. Still, a number of sympathetic readers are beginning to ask: “nice in theory, how to change in practice?”
I think, for many of us, we hope that change will result from a fundamental shift in worldview – particularly what we hold to be valuable, or what we think constitutes “success” or “the good life.” But, there are other examples taking place right now in our midst, including efforts described in this remarkable article in today’s “Inside Higher Education.” The article describes philanthropic efforts to encourage talented young people who have completed college – courtesy of a scholarship – to return to their home region, a coal-mining area of Pennsylvania. Just these sorts of efforts could be the beginning of a virtuous circle, in which successful businessmen with a strong sense of place and gratitude for what they have inherited will encourage a similar ethic – including the encouragement to the creation of small, local businesses – thus fostering a similar ethic in a new generation. This was historically the responsibility of the trustees of communities – to bring up the next generation to become good citizens and trustees, some of whom would become the leaders and exemplars of their communities. At some point, they decided instead that the best thing they could do for their talented young people would be to encourage them to go away.
This new generation has been offered almost NO ALTERNATIVE to embracing a meritocratic, placeless, hyper-mobile, absentee economy and the itinerant “lifestyle” it requires. These philanthropists may be a catalyst to a fundamental rethinking about what should be valued. I hope more will pursue avenues to encourage this alternative, whether as a result of theory or practice.