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I shouldn't have used the term "brain drain." It's a bigoted term.

Jan 24, 2017

A century ago, opinionated journalism was dominated by the brilliant and sarcastic columnist H.L. Mencken. Among other things, he was a flamboyant atheist. Once, someone demanded to know what he would do if he died and found himself before God and his angels.

Mencken replied that he would bow and say, “Gentlemen, I was wrong.”

Well, I haven’t been hauled up before the Almighty – yet -- but I am indeed sometimes wrong.

I got a wonderful email yesterday from Jim Bower, a listener in Byron Center near Grand Rapids. Believe it or not, I think most writers enjoy hearing thoughtful criticism, even if, or maybe especially if, the reader or listener disagrees.

Some time ago, Michigan Radio stopped allowing listeners to post comments after stories and my essays. This wasn’t because we are afraid of dissent. It was because, all too often, the comments went like this:

"You communist libtard, you want Stalinism."

This would be followed by someone calling that person a Nazi, et cetera. Not especially enlightening. By the way, I was called a "Stalinist" because I suggested it might be a good idea to raise taxes to fix the roads before our cars are all destroyed.

I can't imagine a greater compliment.

But Jim Bower told me that while he is a conservative who often fundamentally disagrees with me, he added “many times you provide me a deeper understanding by sharing your knowledge, opinion, and insights.” I can’t imagine a greater compliment.

But he took issue with my commentary Monday, in which I noted that there was still an ongoing “brain drain” of native Michiganders with college degrees.

More citizens with degrees are leaving Michigan than are moving in, though the gap is being filled by an influx of highly educated immigrants.

Bower objected to the implication that anyone without a degree is not as intelligent. He suggested I go to an auto parts store on a Sunday night and witness blue collar workers trying to fix their wives’ car so she can get to her minimum wage job.

“They’re tired and frustrated, but you can see in their eyes that they’ve figured out a solution that no Bachelor’s Degree person would have the remotest idea of,” he said.

Bower thought the use of terms like brain drain tends to stigmatize and discourage vocational education.

Bower thought the use of terms like brain drain tends to stigmatize and discourage vocational education.

And you know what – he is right. It is a bigoted term.

I shouldn’t have used it.

I’ve argued for years that we need more and better vocational training; one of my heroes is Jim Jacobs, the president of Macomb Community College, a place which does more of that better than anyplace I know.

But while training the best electricians and welders is critically necessary, that won’t be sufficient to build a competitive economy. We need people highly educated in engineering and the sciences and other fields who have the knowledge to be successful entrepreneurs.

Bower indicated he thought that most people with college educations have a sense of arrogant entitlement and didn’t want to work very hard. Well, that’s not true of most of those I know. I do think we all need to keep our minds open and try to look at the world from different perspectives than our normal, comfortable ones.

And I appreciate thoughtful people helping me do just that.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.