The work necessary for sustainable, civil communities exists and will continue to expand.
By Robert A. Scott, President, Adelphi University
More than 1.5 billion people are unemployed or underemployed in the world. In the U.S., and around the world, corporations are cutting jobs by the tens of thousands. Throughout the world, there is a relationship between increased unemployment and crime and violence.
How do we break the cycle of unemployment, poverty, and rage? Through education! What are our responsibilities as educators as we read news accounts of “downsizing” and see the effects on the parents and siblings of our students?
It is important to remember that technology takes with one hand but gives with another. In the middle of the last century, farm employment accounted for three-quarters of all jobs. Today it is one percent. What happened to these people? Between 1860 and 1910, the number of persons employed in manufacturing grew over 500 percent, and doubled again by 1960. But we know that manufacturing employment has dropped. What happened? Between 1870 and 1990, the number of persons employed in the service sector grew from three million to over 110 million. And this, too, is changing.
Jobs as we know them are only about 150 years old. Moreover, corporate employment, the subject of all the stories about downsizing, is about 100 years old, a mere blip in the history of work.
When I was in college, the wealthy kids didn’t worry about jobs; they thought about work. My father, with a basic education, urged me to take a salaried job in appliance sales for General Electric. But some of my college friends were talking about where they should apply their knowledge, skills, abilities and values – that is, where they would solve problems. And that was the difference. The G.E. job was an honorable choice, but it was not at a level of problem-solving for which I aspired or had been educated.
As Bill Gates says, jobs are eliminated, but “work” or opportunities for problem-solving expand. Therefore, how best can we prepare our students for a future in which they must view themselves as problem-solvers in constantly evolving settings for work?
Education must contribute to the making of a civil society. Cyber-work is both “connecting” – think of e-mail and the Internet – and “disconnecting” – one is alone. We must help students find common ground and realize the communal destiny worth striving for.
How do we prepare students for a multicultural, yet “post-ethnic”, civil America, in which a future Alex Haley could write about the heritage of both his African mother and his Irish father? By fostering multicultural communities of mutual respect.
Throughout the world, educators and public policy groups are trying to determine how best to provide access to collegiate success for students previously excluded from higher education. In Europe, Asia, and South Africa, groups are looking at our opportunity programs trying to determine what works best and what should be changed.
They are looking at philosophical approaches, such as my four essential “I’s” (inquisitiveness, interdisciplinarity, involvement, and independence), as well as at practical strategies (students should have the daily discipline to read a national newspaper, study, and exercise).
We know the skills and abilities that organizations desire in employees. Beyond technological know-how and an attitude of continuous learning, employers want people with energy, initiative, creativity, productivity, courage, a willingness to listen, an ability to tolerate ambiguity and multiple tasks, interpersonal skills, and the ability to motivate others, build teamwork, and achieve consensus.
Moreover, it is highly likely that our graduates will work with, do business with, or live among people of a different ethnic, national, or religious background. Therefore, the mission of every college or university should be to advance students’ ability to deal with this new world.
We seek to engage students in their studies, to assist in their transformation, not simply to encounter them in series of transactions as we “deliver” instruction. Cooperative education, internships, and service learning all reinforce what we do in the classroom
Seneca said, “the fates guide those who go willingly; those who do not, they drag.” The fates seem to say that mobilizing a multicultural and technological society is a must. We need to teach for teamwork as well as for independence; we need to design work, not just think about jobs.
Just think of the work to be done in a society: prenatal care; child care; learning how people learn; tutoring; creating a society that can be free of disease, ignorance and violence; hospice care; creating communities of common interest; firefighting and ambulance attendants (now largely volunteer efforts); smart roads; sturdy bridges; and much, much more.
The work necessary for sustainable, civil communities exists and will continue to expand. Technological tools are increasingly available. Health care coverage can be provided as a “portable” benefit. Are we ready to prepare our students for such a future? Can we influence higher education and the state and our country in ways that will support this quest? Do we have a choice?
An earlier version of this essay appeared in The Sunday Record (New Jersey), May 12, 1996.
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