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OUR OPINION: Minnesota at 150 - How can the state recapture its ideal?

"Those who don't remember the past are condemned to repeat it." In most places, that scenario would be unfortunate. But in Minnesota, it could to be a blessing.

"Those who don't remember the past are condemned to repeat it." In most places, that scenario would be unfortunate. But in Minnesota, it could to be a blessing.

That's because Minnesota's past is so rich and inspiring, enough to make the state stand out for decades as a national model of good governance. Today is Minnesota's 150th birthday. Will the second 150 years be as charmed as the first?

No question is more important in Minnesota, a state that continues to inspire deep pride -- but where residents could be forgiven for wondering whether the best has already been.

On May 11, 1858, Minnesota entered the union as the 32nd state. And over the course of its first 100 years, waves of immigrants and settlers put foundation stones in place for one of America's more impressive "cities on a hill." One example tells the tale: In much of early 20th-century America, mining towns were places where schooling was an afterthought. In the Pennsylvania coal fields, for example, 9- and 10-year old 'breaker boys' worked 14-hour days picking slate rock from tumbling cataracts of crushed coal. Life was nasty, brutish and short for these youngsters, who, as one reporter noted, were as 'aged and blackened as the gargoyles of Notre Dame.' But on Minnesota's Iron Range, a different history unfolded. There, "mining companies lured workers with the promise of an education for their children," The New York Times has reported.

In Norway, compulsory education dates back to the 1700s, and the Scandinavian heritage of many "Rangers" may have influenced the local culture. In any event, one result was Hibbing (Minn.) High School, built by U.S. Steel in 1925 at a cost of nearly $4 million. The high school's auditorium features cut-glass chandeliers and a 1,900-pipe organ. Tour guides show visitors through the castlelike facility to this day.


"Minnesota has been called the most Scandinavian state in the United States," wrote Bruce Larson, a history professor at Minnesota State University-Mankato, in a 1999 article in Scandinavian Review.

"As a case in point, 21 of the last 25 governors since 1893 have been Scandinavian or partly Scandinavian by ancestry or birth. .?.?. Importantly, these governors have shown a consistent commitment, regardless of party, to liberal reforms such as education, the environment and social welfare." And partly as a result, Minnesota earned a reputation as an egalitarian, civic-minded and very well-governed state. "The Book of America," a 1980 guide, put it this way: "Search America from sea to sea, and you will not find a state that has offered as close a model to the ideal of the successful society as Minnesota."

Would an updated volume say the same today?

Probably not, Mpls-St. Paul magazine answered in 2004. "Our research and myriad conversations .?.?. tell us Minnesota's edge has dulled significantly, that we've pulled back from wanting to be Number One." the article concluded.

"Today, the old mantra of 'We're all in this together' seems to be giving way to 'It's us against them.''' Some of the state's quality-of-life indicators still stand out. On average, the population is healthy and long-lived, and the arts still flourish.

But "without argument, the state's historic commitment to public education is eroding," the magazine noted.

And "the future looks cloudy past the K-12 level too. .?.?. Minnesota ranks only seventeenth in the percentage of 18- to 24-year-olds enrolled in U.S. post-secondary institutions. .?.?. The U remains a premier research facility, but the state has fallen from fourth to 20th in relative support for higher education, a woeful trend." And so on, through troubling numbers about traffic, partisanship, racial tensions and crime.

Despite these indicators, Minnesota at 150 remains a much-admired state and a terrific place to call home. Let's appreciate those good things today, honor the leaders who helped Minnesota develop in this way -- and consider, given that the pendulum has swung away from some of Minnesota's traditional practices, whether it's time to pull that pendulum back.

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