Atlanta, GA — When Morehouse College invited scholars to examine society’s lot, they passed the bitter sweet judgment that our age of technology is a double-edged sword. Responsible for the enhancement of life, new technology is also responsible for many unintended social consequences.
We face a 21st century, they said, full of promise and peril.
The symposium of scholars was one of several events celebrating the inauguration of Dr. Walter E. Massey as president of Morehouse College. Massey, a physicist and former head of the National Science Foundation, was formally inducted as the ninth president of Morehouse, which was simultaneously commemorating its 129th anniversary.
Among those participating in the symposium, “Visions of the 21st Century,” were Dr. Robert M. Dixon, chairman of the department of physics at Morehouse; Dr. Carl Patton, president of Georgia State University; Dr. Eric Wanner, president of the Russell Sage Foundation; and Dr. William Julius Wilson, who was recently lured to Harvard University from the Center for the Study of Urban Inequality at the University Of Chicago.
Noting the fact that a scientist was taking the helm of a liberal arts school, panelists urged balancing both technology and humanitarianism. Massey, the panelists said, must prepare students for a world in which, for better or worse, their grasp of technology will affect their prospects for prosperity. Their leadership in the compassionate management of high-tech resources, panelists said, is critical to society’s well-being.
In an age where computer technology “has become an indispensable tool in our offices and our homes,” said Morehouse’s Robert Dixon, George Orwell’s book “1984” comes to mind. “1984,” Dixon said, “was about hopelessness in a technological society.”
Dixon lamented that places of learning for many youth are “ill-equipped, run-down facilities with poorly trained teachers” that discourage students from staying in school.
The rapid advance of technology is contributing markedly to a widening gap between America’s skilled and low-skilled workers, and the well-educated and the poorly educated, the panelists said. In turn, these inequalities are intensifying social problems. Meanwhile, these problems too often go unrecognized, or they are inappropriately engaged, panelists said.
In the long run, the extent to which the country can enjoy gains produced by advancing technology will depend on how well it comes to terms with the polarizing and injurious effects of social and economic inequalities. panelists said.
William Julius Wilson laid out his analysis of today’s society, saying that he has experienced “strong feelings of frustration about the current debate on welfare reform” because proponents of the current reforms argue that they will “effectively address many social problems that have been on the rise — the disappearance of work, family dissolution, teen pregnancies, out-of-wedlock births, even crime.”
Wilson argued that this is a short-sighted view of a “very complex set of problems that is not unique to the United States. We have to develop a broader vision if we are to effectively address the economic and social dislocations that are sweeping across the Western world, and that will extend well into the 21st century.”
Advancing technology is creating jobs, Wilson said. Just as rapidly, it is making others obsolete. The decline of the American mass production system, with its ability to provide well-paid, blue-collar jobs for workers with little formal education, combined with the rapid expansion of high-technology and low-paying service jobs, has helped create a yawning gap in wages. Educated workers have benefitted by the trend, while workers engaged in more routine work face a growing threat of job displacement.
For example, Wilson said, in the 1970s two-thirds of prime-age workers with less than a high school education worked full-time, year-round, for eight out of 10 years. During the 1980s only half did so. Prime-age Black men experienced a similar sharp decline.
These are riddles of a global economy, Wilson said. The same problems are evident, he said, in Canada and in European countries.
These trends have hit men hardest. Between 1989 and 1993, jobs held by women increased by 1.3 million while those held by men “barely rose at all — about 100,000,” Wilson said.
“The problem for inner-city youth is even worse because of America’s extremely poor school-to-work transition system,” Wilson said. “America has the worst school-to-work transition process of any industrialized nation.”
Wilson said that, unlike Germany and Japan, the U.S. has no systematic process for assisting noncollege bound high school graduates to make a smooth transition from school to work. This, despite the fact that this group makes up about half of every high school graduating class.
Black youth in particular are victims of this shortcoming. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 22% of non-college bound Black youths held jobs in the four months following their graduation from high school, compared to 69% of their white counterparts.
Without a school-to-work transition process, the U.S. misses important opportunities to build critical communication networks between industries and schools. The consequences: schools lose access to valuable knowledge about changing workplace skills and they fail to benefit from sophisticated corporate learning systems.
“Most important,” Wilson said, “it disconnects achievement in school for rewards in the workplace, thereby undermining the incentives for academic success.”
In discussing what could be done to counter these global trends, the symposium panelists were critical of political leaders who offer simplistic ideological messages that do not take into account the wider picture.
Russell Sage Foundation’s Wanner called for something similar to the turn-of-the-century Progressive reform movement whose members sought to regulate health, safety and working conditions.
Calling that period “a remarkable episode in the history of our country,” Wanner cited some of the movement’s accomplishments: the nation’s first pure food and drug laws; the Federal Trade Commission; and the Federal Reserve Board.
While not endorsing big government, Wanner said. “it sure seems to me that our current disaffection for activist government — particularly at the federal level — may stand us in very bad stead as we enter the 21st century.”
Wanner said the country should at least consider massive spending to support additional educational training for workers with a high school education or less. He proposed other “currently unthinkable” roles for government: public jobs programs, subsidies for employers to hire low-skill workers, increases in the minimum wage, and increased wage supplements to low-wage workers.
The nation’s growing economic inequality did not obscure some bullish visions of the 21st century by the panelists.
For example, Morehouse’s Dixon predicted that major explorations by the U.S. in space — including the building of two space stations — would “cause a new thrust in the teaching of mathematics and science similar to what happened following Sputnik.”
Said Dixon: “As great as the challenges of the next century are, as interesting as many of the questions are … the primary challenge is the enhancement of life. It is the challenge that becomes more critical as we gain knowledge.”
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