Published Online:

Rethinking the Mission of American Education

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Education now ranks as the number-one priority among American voters, with 67 percent of those surveyed saying it is a major concern, according to a recent Gallup poll. Nearly every school system in the country is responding to the crisis in American education by scurrying to prepare the next generation for work in the emerging information-age economy. Computer literacy has become a sacred mantra as administrators and teachers search for new and inventive ways of bringing the tools and conceptual language of the digital revolution into the classroom. Underlying the new missionary zeal lies a kind of desperate frenzy, driven by the universally accepted assumption that competitive success in the cyberspace economy of the 21st century requires a new kind of mind able to traverse the virtual corridors of the information superhighway.

Unfortunately, American educators have not been told the whole story. While politicians and many mainstream economists continue to urge an upgrading of the technical skills and proficiency of the American workforce to meet the economic challenges of the information age and warn educators to "get the kids ready" for the new high-tech market, some business leaders privately worry that the jobs won't be there in numbers sufficient to employ the next generation.

The reality is that the global economy is undergoing a fundamental transformation in the nature of work brought on by the new technologies of the information-age revolution. These profound technological and economic changes are going to force every country to rethink its long-held assumptions about the nature of education if it is to adjust to the radical new world of cyberspace.

Sophisticated computers, robotics, telecommunications, and other information-age technologies are fast replacing human beings in every industry. Nowhere is this trend more apparent than in the manufacturing sector. Automated technologies have been reducing the need for human labor in every manufacturing category. Within 10 years, less than 12 percent of the American workforce will be on the factory floor, and by the year 2020, less than 2 percent of the entire global workforce will still be engaged in factory work. Over the next quarter century, we will see the virtual elimination of the blue-collar, mass-assembly-line worker from the production process.

Economists and politicians have long assumed that displaced factory workers would find new job opportunities in the service sector. Now, however, the service sector is also beginning to automate, eliminating vast numbers of white-collar workers in the process. In the banking, insurance, wholesale, and retail sectors, companies are deconstructing. They are removing layer after layer of management and infrastructure, replacing the traditional corporate pyramid and mass white-collar workforces with small, highly skilled professional work teams, using state-of-the-art software and telecommunication technologies.

Acknowledging that both the manufacturing and service sectors are quickly re-engineering their infrastructures and automating their production processes, many mainstream economists and politicians have turned to the emerging knowledge sector, pinning their hopes on new job opportunities along the information superhighway and in cyberspace. While the "knowledge sector" will create some new jobs, they will be too few to accommodate the millions of workers displaced by the new technologies. That's because the knowledge sector is, by nature, an elite workforce and not a mass-labor workforce. Engineers, highly skilled technicians, computer programmers, scientists, and professionals will never be needed in "mass" numbers to produce goods and services in the information age. Indeed, the shift from mass to elite labor forces is what distinguishes work in the information age from that of the industrial age.

With near workerless factories and virtual companies already looming on the horizon, every nation will have to grapple with the question of what to do with the millions of young people whose labor will be needed less, or not at all, in an ever more automated global economy.

Up to now, the marketplace and government have been looked to, almost exclusively, for solutions to the growing economic crisis facing the country. Today, with the formal economy less able to provide permanent jobs for the millions of Americans in search of employment and with the government retreating from its traditional role of employer of last resort, the nation's nonprofit sector--the civil society--may be the best hope for absorbing the millions of displaced workers cast off by corporate and government re-engineering. The implications for American education are enormous and far-reaching and may require a complete rethinking of the very mission of public school education in the coming years.

This so-called Third Sector cuts a wide swath through society. Nonprofit activities run the gamut from social services to health care, education and research, the arts, religion, and advocacy. There are currently more than 1.4 million nonprofit organizations in the United States with total combined assets of more than $500 billion. The expenditures of America's nonprofit voluntary organizations exceed the gross national product of all but seven nations in the world. The Third Sector already contributes more than 6 percent of the gross national product and is responsible for 10.5 percent of the total national employment. More people are employed in Third Sector organizations than work in the construction, electronics, transportation, or textile and apparel industries.

For more than 200 years, the civil society has shaped the American experience, reaching into every corner of American life, helping transform a frontier culture into a highly advanced nation. While historians are quick to credit the market and government sectors with America's greatness, the civil sector has played an equally aggressive role in defining the American way of life. The nation's first schools and colleges, its hospitals, social-service organizations, fraternal orders, women's clubs, youth organizations, civil-rights groups, social-justice organizations, conservation and environmental-protection groups, animal-welfare organizations, theaters, orchestras, art galleries, libraries, museums, civic associations, community-development organizations, neighborhood advisory councils, volunteer fire departments, and civilian security patrols are all creatures of the Third Sector. Today, nonprofit organizations are serving millions of Americans in every neighborhood and community of the country.

The opportunity now exists to create millions of new jobs in the Third Sector. Freeing up the labor and talent of men and women no longer needed in the market and government sectors to create "social capital" in neighborhoods and communities will cost money. Taxing a percentage of the wealth generated by the new information-age economy and redirecting it into the neighborhoods and communities of the country and to the creation of jobs and the rebuilding of the social commons provides a new agenda and a powerful vision of what life could be like in the 21st century.

Re-envisioning work, however, requires that we rethink our notion of politics and education. While politicians traditionally divide the United States into a spectrum running from the marketplace, on one side, to the government, on the other, it is more accurate to think of the society as a three-legged stool made up of the market sector, government sector, and civil sector. The first leg creates market capital, the second leg creates public capital, and the third leg creates social capital. Of the three legs, the oldest and most important, but least acknowledged, is the Third Sector.

In the old scheme of things, finding the proper balance between the market and government dominated political discussion. In the new scheme, finding a balance between market, government, and civil-sector forces becomes paramount. Thinking of society as creating three types of capital--market capital, public capital, and social capital--opens up new possibilities for reconceptualizing the social contract, the meaning of work, and the kind of education we give our youngsters.

Interestingly enough, a quiet revolution, reflecting the new interest in social capital, has been spreading through the nation's schools over the past five years and is continuing to gain momentum. It's called service learning, and it represents a potential paradigm shift in the mission of American education. States, localities, and individual school systems are beginning to mandate community service in neighborhood nonprofit organizations as a requirement in curriculum. Teaching children the value of service and the importance of creating social capital in their own communities is being viewed as a learning tool to prepare the next generation for its responsibilities to the civil society.

At a time when teachers, parents, and communities are becoming more concerned about the growing sense of alienation, detachment, and aimlessness of the nation's youngsters, service learning is an important development. Providing young people an opportunity for deep participation in the community helps engender a sense of personal responsibility and accountability, fosters self-esteem and leadership, and, most of all, allows the feelings of creativity, initiative, and empathy to grow and flourish. Service learning is an essential antidote to the increasingly isolated world of simulation and virtual reality children experience in the classroom and at home in front of the television and at their computer workstations.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that student involvement in service learning reduces the incidence of depression, drug and alcohol abuse, suicide, and violent crime. This isn't surprising. Service learning can give a youngster a sense of place, and belonging, as well as add meaning to his or her life--all of which reverberates back into the classroom, creating a more responsive and motivated student.

Until recently, the service-learning experiment has been viewed as a peripheral part of the educational process. Now, however, a growing number of educators are suggesting that it be incorporated into the heart of the school experience and be integrated more directly into the curriculum itself. They point out that while much has been said over the years about America's rough-and-tumble frontier tradition and the fierce competitive ethic that has made the nation an economic superpower, the caring side of the American experience, the one that makes Americans join together in collective service to each other, is given little notice. This central aspect of the American character and experience is little examined in textbooks and curricula.

Integrating the rich 200-year historical legacy and values of the civil society into every aspect of curriculum provides a context and framework for children to understand the importance of service learning in the community and the central role that social capital plays in the life of the country. Learning about the heroes and heroines that have helped forge America's civil society offers historical role models for children to emulate.

Rethinking the role of American education also means re-examining the role of teaching. Thought ought to be given to a two-tier teaching system made up of curriculum teachers and clinic teachers with the former responsible for work in the classroom and the latter for education in the community. As to the question of how to pay for a two-tier teaching system, it is likely that parents and taxpayers, if brought into a process of public dialogue with teachers and community groups around service learning, might enthusiastically embrace this new concept of education as an innovation worthy of sustained support. After all, nearly one out of two adult Americans gives four or more hours per week to volunteer work in the civil sector. Although they come from different races, classes, ethnic, and religious backgrounds, and have different political views, they all share a belief in the importance of service to the community and creation of social capital. If that shared value can be transformed into a new partnership with American schools that incorporates the civil-sector experience into the mission of American education, the way might be cleared for redefining and transforming the learning process.

For more than a century, the mission of American education has centered, almost exclusively, on the rather narrow task of preparing the next generation to be productive in the marketplace. Now, on the cusp of the information age, we face the very real challenge of redefining the nature of work itself. While the industrial age ended slave labor, the information age is likely to end mass wage labor, freeing up millions of people for alternative forms of work outside the marketplace. Preparing the next generation for potential work in both the marketplace and the civil sector is, perhaps, the single most important challenge facing educators and the American school system as we make the transition into a new century and a new economic epoch in history.

Jeremy Rifkin is the author of The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era (Tarcher/Putnam). He is the president of the Foundation on Economic Trends, based in Washington.

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories