Sunday, June 04, 2006
The Urban Myth Of Brain Drain

It's just gone graduation season, and that means the phrase "brain drain" has been tossed around by every newspaper and public source of conventional wisdom in the country over the past few weeks. When I was at commencement in Vermont, the author of the article covering my graduation ceremony made sure to include it. When I came back, there was a long piece on it in the Sunday paper. Down here, they complain about the "best and brightest" (another stomach-churning cliche) heading north; up north, they just complain that they're going somewhere vaguely else.

I'm not buying it, for a number of reasons. The biggest one of which is this: I know too many smart, talented, ambitious people in this city who are going without work worthy of their talents, to believe that there's any huge demand for the "best and brightest" in this city. This is a blue-collar city. It runs on a workforce of the moderately-well-educated-and-of-average-intelligence; being genuinely "best" and "brightest" only gets you in trouble with the Head White Guy. The examples given in the local papers are of vaguely disappointing valedictorians, kids who will now go to Vanderbilt or Duke and come back (or move somewhere distressingly similar) and become fairly boring, upper-middle-class executive employees. If these are the people my city laments losing, that would explain a hell of a lot. Any asshole can fill up a suit; it takes somewhat more depth to have an impact on society.

For instance, they have not yet (as far as I know) implemented an ACT test for creativity, and there isn't a "vision" section in the SAT. The skills necessary to be valedictorian are not the same ones necessary to create something new in the world -- they can co-exist, certainly, but they can also be mutually suffocating. For most people, graduating from high school or college is better than not graduating. But I've been stunned by how often the smartest, most creative, most interesting people I know didn't graduate, or graduated in an unconventional way. There's no way to reliably express that experience on a resume or on a job application, though, and so these people either luck their way into good jobs or spend their most productive years struggling forward and doing their own thing as best they can without support or recognition. Many of them do what they can to stay in their native city or region, but unless they were fortunate enough to be born in Seattle or Austin, their homes seem determined to drive them away. But when they finally leave, never are they lamented with the words "brain drain."

I ask you, is that any way to treat the people who would elsewhere become the engines of the local economy? They put their worry into people who have proven themselves able to work the system, but not able to imagine an entirely new system; they invest their time and effort in people who are good at maintaining the status quo and thus have no desire to see it change; and then they wonder why the city's situation never improves, why it remains stuck on a low economic tier. Meanwhile, the people who struggle to get by in demeaning, low-paying jobs while spending every free moment working to create something new and interesting, eventually get tired of being left out in the cold and move on to more welcoming places. Of the smartest and most creative people I know in Memphis, almost all of them expect to leave sooner or later. And that goes for me, too. I feel connected to this city now, and I expect on some level I always will. And I'm willing to spend a few years making the effort in the hopes that I might be able to carve out a creative's life in Memphis. But I fully expect that eventually, one day, I'll be leaving along with the rest of them, because our love for this city remains on some level unrequited. It tells us it wants us to stay, but it never really loves us back.
2:03 PM ::
Amy :: permalink