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On Choosing a 'High Democratic Culture'

Arthur G. Wirth's Education and Work for the Year 2000: Choices We Face offers one of the most thoughtful syntheses to date of school-reform issues and their relation to changes in the American workplace. In the excerpt below, the professor emeritus at Washington University in St. Louis discusses the social dimensions of failure to adequately address the economically linked education needs of the new century--needs that will require imparting the reasoning and computer-science skills used by an "informating,'' rather than an automated, workforce:

By Arthur G. Wirth

By 2020, the top fifth of American earners will earn more than 60 percent of American income, with the bottom fifth dropping to 2 percent. The high-tech elite will withdraw further into their secure enclaves, living a life with excellent health care, challenging work, effective schools, and global travel and linkages. They can tolerate the disorder beyond the pale by walling themselves off, both physically and psychologically, from those who have been left out. Moreover, one might expect more moves toward a security state with investment in electronically equipped security forces, more high-security prisons, and a stepping up of executions for those who have truly "stepped over the line.''

There will be less contact between these enclaves and the rest of society. The urban and rural poor will live largely out of sight in their own decaying sectors. The despair and hopelessness of their children will be a fact of life--as will be the human warehousing of thousands of minority youths in prisons.

We may choose that way. It is not a vision of America as "a light on the hill'' to the rest of the world's burgeoning and impoverished population. But it is not our only choice. We could be guided by another vision--one that Lynn White in Dynamo and Virgin Reconsidered refers to as a "high democratic culture''--one in which the concern for human values and excellence of aristocratic traditions would be combined with the democratic concern for the dignity of each and the desire to include all in meaningful participation.

Such a culture would require a recognition by America's leaders that a dangerously divided society, in the long run, is an intolerable threat to the country's moral and material well-being and survival. It would require a decision to take the power of new technology and combine it with the values of our democratic tradition.

It would require recognition that the best bet for America's social well-being is a population equipped across the board with symbolic-analytic skills tempered by ecological awareness and deep appreciation for the values and traditions of democracy. Where work is concerned, it would require a commitment to seize the advantage of having thoroughly educated workers to create environments that would combine high tech with high worker involvement--the "informating'' style.

There is no more dramatic example of this present class-riven society than the physical features of American work and schooling in the heart of the U.S. financial capital: the island of Manhattan. The sumptuous corporate towers, loaded with ever-changing electronics that link the inhabitants to their counterparts anywhere in the world, shout the message that America is a world-class economic power. Compare that image with the condition of the public schools on that same island. The reality of the new economic world-in-the-making asserts that sustaining a world-class economic power depends on the creation of world-class schooling. Do we have the imagination to envision the features of world-class schools for all the children of Manhattan? And having created the conception, would there be a commitment to create the schools--not only in New York but across the country?

To create a society of world-class schools for a world-class economy would demand a dramatic change in priorities. It would demand an investment in education, at all levels, of the order employed in building a high-tech military machine during the Cold War.

Just the sheer cost of razing the decayed shells of inner-city school buildings and replacing them with modern centers to support symbolic-analytic learning would itself be enormous. A decision would be needed to create exciting learning centers with physical accoutrements comparable to those of American corporations--with readily available computer facilities for all students and teachers, fine laboratories for the sciences, the arts, and language instruction, and, difficult to imagine, air conditioning. Such schools, led by leaders committed to the new vision, would attract to teaching some of our most able and imaginative young adults.

The real test of progress will be to count how many inner-city schools have been turned into such world-class learning communities by the year 2000.

If this image of a new quality of schooling for American children seems mere fantasy, it demonstrates how far we are from getting serious about the educational resources we need. We cannot get the education we require to be competitive in a high-tech postindustrialism, and to tap the array of strengths of our democratic culture, without a major federal financial commitment. Once we face that fact squarely, we can see current proposals for education on-the-cheap--vouchers, national testing, and so forth--as the faint-hearted evasions they are.

From Education and Work for the Year 2000: Choices We Face, by Arthur G. Wirth. Copyright 1992 by Jossey-Bass Inc., Publishers. Reprinted by permission.

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