See the world! It'll do a Hoosier good

By RiShawn Biddle

Expresso • January 21, 2006

To understand the challenge of reforming Indiana, let's take a trip across around the Northside of Indianapolis, home to thousands of residents including a certain editorial writer you know and, well, I won't say love.

Ask one of the teenage lasses serving brunch at a local restaurant on 96th street about which college she plans to attend and she may mention Indiana University, Purdue, even Ball State or Ball State as 'safety' schools. Neither Harvard, Yale, Virginia, Stanford nor Michigan, all among the greatest universities in the nation, will pass her lips. The thought of leaving the state has never likely occurred.

Or discuss the pros and cons of eliminating township government with a cab driver on the way to the airport and she'll argue that those anachronisms should remain, despite wasting as much as 60 cents of every dollar of poor relief on bureaucracy because it's "closer to the people." That she has never been to other states where townships no longer exist or never had, in fact, never lived outside of Indianapolis, much less Indiana, doesn't force her to question whether she should actually book a flight to another part of the world herself.

Or during a state senate education committee hearing on part of Gov. Mitch Daniels' school efficiency plan, a representative of the state superintendents association, argues that measuring efficiency should be based on standards that fit Indiana's conditions instead of looking at the efforts of other states is a standard refrain. That in the same breath, he argues that the state seems to have much in common, including the percentage of dollars spent in the classroom, doesn't occur to him. How can Indiana be so different, yet be so much like the rest of the world.

At the heart of all this is a reality: The divide over government reform, over transitioning the state economy from traditional manufacturing into the ever-changing world, even in accepting a change as simple as the existence of Mexican émigrés among the state's workforce -- as represented by an anti-immigration bill sponsored by state Rep. Troy Woodruff -- is a divide between two groups. On one side are the reformers, usually a collection of newcomers to the state and those natives who have left it, experienced the world and returned with a wider range of knowledge. On the other: Natives who have never wandered past the state's borders, never to fathom high school, much less study at University of California, Los Angeles, and think Indiana values are the one, the only and the best.

The reformers understand that the world is far bigger than the state's borders, that a road trip can be more than a drive from Terre Haute to Gary and that the key source of business lies not with Chicago-based firms, but with firms based in Mexico City, in Toronto and in Shanghai. Their counterparts merely think about the firm in Cincinnati, touring Brown County and are incurious about what lies past Connersville. The former understand that the time zone debate is between whether to switch, say Indianapolis, from Eastern Standard Time (or by the end of the year, Eastern Daylight Time) to Central Daylight Time; the latter simply calls it "New York time" versus "Chicago time" and chances are, can't necessarily explain the difference.

What the reformers understand is that a state in which just three of every ten Hoosiers will drop out of high school is not only unacceptable, but that solving that problem requires accepting the facts and figures and adopting methods for solving the crisis. They realize that a township government nameless and faceless except to the friends and families who are its rent-seekers is no better for the average citizen than a massive, faceless bureaucracy. The refrain of opponents, whose only argument comes back to that about how the state has gotten by on mediocrity, so why should it change, is an absolute frustration.

The status quo, on the other hand, appreciate Hoosier tradition, even revere it, to the point of forgetting that nostalgia shouldn't stand in the way of improving quality of life. They have forgotten that their Eli Lillys and Richard Lugars aren't so reverent of Hoosierism that they will ignore the best ideas from outside the culture. Outsiders are to be treated with suspicion. Their ideas? Claptrap from those without memory of days when pigeons were shot on Monument Circle, when D.B. Stevenson wasn't a bigot rapist, but a revered member of society. To them, their fellow Hoosiers who have gone elsewhere and come back with such weird ideas are even worse; traitors they are to the tried-and-true. They've long closed the doors onto the outside world without ever giving it a chance.

The reformers among us have been elsewhere; they want to retain the best of what Indiana has to offer, yet fix what keeps it stuck in a rut. The tried-and-true, on the other hand, have never left the state and in doing so, have never expanded their own knowledge. This is why in the great debates of this day, the divide is rift wrapped in a fault line engulfed in a chasm between differing minds.

This is no simple failure to communicate. Nor can the hearts and minds of those opposed to reform be changed with the usual recipe of speaker series, art exhibits or studies. Perhaps a program to send young Hoosiers out of state to other universities and longtime residents to five-year stays in, say, New York, would be best in changing their hearts and minds.

This alone may be the reason why the state's so-called brain drain isn't such a bad thing. As we have seen with some of the best of reformers, including those working within the Daniels administration, what the state gets back are minds better-adept at contemplating the need for change. More of such minds are needed.