Last fall, Monmouth College launched a curricular and institutional initiative focusing on the history, culture and economy of the American Heartland. MC’s Midwest Studies program includes an annual forum, a series of interdisciplinary courses, cultural events, special collections, internships and community outreach.
The Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus once said, “Know thyself,” and that is just what Monmouth College history professors Simon Cordery and Fred Witzig are trying to do. As academic coordinators for the college’s new Midwest Studies initiative, they are acutely aware of the importance of studying the Midwest and understanding the unique challenges and opportunities the region faces.
Mention the Midwest, and the average person probably conjures up an image of life on the farm. “People often don’t realize that this region is a place of great innovation,” says Witzig, who did not realize that himself until he moved here. Originally from Los Angeles, Witzig says that he enjoys the Midwest more than he ever thought he could. “I really got tired of the city life. It was expensive, intense, traffic was bad, and having millions of people racing around was exhausting,” he said. “The pace of life here is slower and more enjoyable.”
Cordery’s love for the Midwest developed in a similar fashion. His family moved to the Chicago suburbs from Great Britain when he was a child, and after attending school outside of the area, he was more than happy to return. “I find the Midwest to be relaxing and laid-back, but it is not a cultural wilderness,” Cordery said. He pointed out that while there are rural areas, there are just as many urban areas. “There are many opportunities to experience the city, and it is not hard to find something to do.”
Originally, Witzig had little interest in studying the Midwest. As a California native, he found “the Gold Rush and Spanish Southwest more interesting and exciting.” However, his opinions about Midwestern history quickly changed while he was teaching in Indiana. “The professor who taught Indiana history was retiring, so I began to teach that course,” he said. “Once I started studying it, I began to really enjoy it.”
Witzig wrote his dissertation about the Northeast, but it seemed far away. “The nice thing about studying Midwestern history is that you can feel it,” he explained. “You can go to the place where the event occurred, and that really allows students to understand their background.”
Cordery’s research interests center around transportation and railroads. “I enjoy studying railroads and reading about railroad history,” he said. “The Midwest—particularly Chicago—is the hub of the American railroad system.” As an Illinois Humanities Council Road Scholar, Cordery often speaks about the history of railroads in the Midwest.
Cordery and Witzig agree that the majority of the country perceives the Midwest to be a “flyover zone.” The area from Columbus, Ohio to Salt Lake City, Utah is rarely studied, and Cordery believes there’s a reason.
“The West Coast has Hollywood, Starbucks and everything that California represents,” he said. “The East Coast has New England, the Revolutionary War, traditions and heritages. The southern United States carries so much baggage that goes along with saying, ‘I’m from the South.’ The Midwest is seen as anodyne. There is no great conflict, which translates to very little interest in the Midwest.”
Witzig offers a counterargument. He points out that the 1858 Senate campaign in which Lincoln and Douglas squared off in a series of debates throughout Illinois had huge significance in the history of the United States. It caught the attention of the nation and helped spark the controversy that became the Civil War. Witzig also notes that General Ulysses S. Grant was from Illinois.
Witzig is currently teaching a course about the history of Illinois and the Midwest, while English professor Kevin Roberts is teaching on the culture of the Midwest. Other courses being developed for this fall will focus on Midwest transportation, religious cultures, immigrant communities and entrepreneurism.
When asked about what the Midwest Studies Initiative can do for the region, Cordery and Witzig both offer high hopes. “This program will bring together decision makers and public intellectuals and will help citizens to understand the identity of the region,” said Cordery. “We can understand and shape the future based on the past and present events of the area.”
“The Midwest Studies Initiative gives students an opportunity to study the region as a whole, and realize that Illinois shares the same challenges as Iowa or Indiana,” Witzig said. “If we are able to see ourselves as a region, rather than individual states, we will be able to find solutions to these challenges in more effective ways.”
Witzig also hopes that the Midwest Studies Initiative will be able to raise the profile of the region and help break the stereotypes other areas have about the Midwest.
“Any southern university will have a Southern Studies Center, or at least a Southern Studies major,” said Cordery. “Other parts of the country are more historically self-aware than the Midwest.” He believes that by developing the initiative, Monmouth College is not only breaking new ground, but offering its students an advantage. For example, he believes a business major would have a better understanding of the Midwest marketplace, while an education major would be better able to understand the background and needs of his or her future students.
“Know thyself” seems to be a lofty charge, but through the Midwest Studies Initiative, Monmouth College students will be better able to understand their background and better prepared to shape the future of the Midwest. iBi