Powell Garden, Kansas

Powell Gardens, Kansas

I just returned from a long weekend in Kansas City reunion-ing with six high school girlfriends.  A big topic of conversation was whether our high school education was good.  We grew up in North Dakota.  Only a group of NDak-ers would even ask such a question.  Can you say, “Insecure?”

In the Fall 2012 issue of Prairie Schooner (a University of Nebraska publication) Brian James Schill wrote an article titled, “The Superego State:  A Lover’s Reply.”  Schill teaches at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.  His essay discusses the two halves of North Dakotans, the helpful, even Socialist ones who promote things like the State Bank of ND and the “Can’t we all behave?” North Dakotans who put up billboards that say things like, “Be Kind” or “Be Polite.”  When I am overly the latter, my husband just rolls his eyes and calls me “Dakota.”

The most interesting reference in the essay is to Peter Rentfrow a Cambridge University psychologist who studies the effect of geography on people’s personalities.  Rentfrow found that psychological traits do emerge in geographical regions and that such traits are correlated with behaviors such as crime, religiosity, health, etc.  According to Schill, North Dakota led the nation in two of the five measures, sociability and affability.  North Dakotans ranked first in extraversion and agreeableness and very low in neuroticism.  Schill says that North Dakotans are exceedingly nice and “we impress such behavior on our children and colleagues.”  

Oh. for a dime for every time someone, usually male, said to me:  “Smile, Mary.”  It is not possible to live as a happy introvert in North Dakota.  People simply will not leave you alone.

Rentfrow also found that North Dakota ranks fifty-first in “openness” and near the bottom in “creativity.”  Schill says, “Even if we are sociable…it is only reservedly so, among ourselves.  We bristle at fresh faces, dismiss novelty and kitsch, loathe to be seen as needing others, and tend to ‘make do’ with our bleak surroundings, considering complaining and blasphemy synonymous.  We’ll talk to you for hours but not say a thing.  Add to this lack of openness and creativity often paralyzing feelings of inferiority…”

So, back to education.  Let’s ask first what the purpose of education is.  To my mind, it is to enable the students to think for themselves; the girlfriends mentioned “critical thinking” as one thing they got out of their education.  But how can one learn to be a critical thinker, which requires openness and consideration of alternatives when one is educated in a state that does not value openness or creativity?

Not everyone in ND is an overbearing extrovert.  I only recall one particular teacher who gave me a lower grade in a science class than I deserved so I would “try harder” the next semester.  Funny thing was, I didn’t.

The girlfriends would surely say that we are all good critical thinkers in our adult lives and perhaps even one or two of us have a creative flair, though nothing too wild, of course.  So we were not badly educated.  But I don’t think I could say we got a good education given the limitations of the environment.

I had a friend who stayed on for years and tried to change things by confronting the hypocrisy and willful lack of awareness of the population.  I left.  It was simply too much work.


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