Sunday, November 23, 2008

Adults in college?

A couple of things seem to be true in states like Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana. These states have each lost hundreds of thousands of industrial jobs in the past ten years — the jobs that provided middle-class livings to men and women with high school educations — and there are thousands more job losses to come in the next few months. And these states have unusually low rates of college-educated adults in their populations. Only about 33% of southeast Michigan adults have a four-year degree, compared to higher rates among adults in Connecticut and Oregon. Almost everyone agrees that the new businesses and jobs of the future will require highly educated workers, managers, and designers/engineers, from Tom Friedman to the editorial page of the Detroit Free Press. So what should the rustbelt states be doing to try to remedy their “talent gap”?

One part of the solution is pretty obvious. We need to ratchet up the “culture of education” in the public so families will encourage and support their children in school and in their pursuit of college attendance. There is a cascade of policies that are needed here, from promoting the value of education to parents, to improving attainment in K-12 schools (so that students are prepared for college work) to managing university tuition levels and financial aid and student loan programs to make sure that college is attainable for everyone.

But what about the generation of young people who have already passed the traditional age of attendance and have entered the work world without a college degree? There are over 160,000 people in the Detroit metropolitan region alone between the ages of 25 and 34 who have attended college but have not completed a degree. This is a large population — and their economic futures are dim without further education. If programs could be created that would allow a large percentage of these young people to complete their degrees, their futures would be enhanced, and Detroit would be a more attractive region for new businesses because of the larger talent pool. Surveys indicate that a large percentage of this population wants to complete a college degree. So the challenge to the colleges and universities is straightforward: what can you do to make your programs more accessible and attainable to these young adults? Is it more convenient scheduling? Is it a better mix of traditional and online programs? Is it more generous and more easily understood financial aid programs?

Before any of these changes will occur, universities need to be convinced that young adults are a part of their missions and that they can be successful. Fortunately, there are some good examples of universities that have succeeded in providing access to large numbers of these older students and displaced workers. And their evidence is positive. Faculty attest to the value brought to the classroom by students with a broader range of life experience. And they confirm as well that older students often bring a discipline and determination to their studies that permit them to excel.

What is currently less well understood is the degree of impact that college completion has on the careers of older students. Most studies on the economic impact of college focus on the earning differential of a baccalaureate degree for traditional-age students, and it would be useful to have similar study that provides information about non-traditional students. Likewise, it would be interesting to see a study of typical career trajectories for these non-traditional students.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The multicultural university

It is now pretty universally recognized that universities need to be "multicultural", in several separate senses. They need to be open and welcoming to students coming from many different cultures. They need to create an academic and social environment where students from many cultures can learn together in a harmonious way. And they need to find ways of incorporating the knowledge and perspectives of many cultures into their courses of study and academic programs.

Why are each of these components necessary? One could imagine a university that invited attendance by all students but then worked to extinguish the cultural differences that exist among admitted students. Or we could imagine a university with diverse groups of admitted students that also attempted to create a multicultural social environment -- but that insisted nonetheless on a curriculum based on a narrow, "non-cultural", "neutral" set of topics and pedagogies. So why is it important to incorporate multicultural diversity into all three aspects of the university environment -- recruitment, climate, and curriculum?

There are multiple overlapping reasons for deep multiculturalism in universities that ultimately derive from the changing nature of our society and the fundamental mission of facilitating students' learning.

First, our society. American society may be a relatively extreme case by international comparison, but it is a fact that American culture and society encompasses a remarkable degree of diversity -- in race, age, gender, nationality, and religion, to name several important dimensions of difference. And our commitment to the principles of fundamental human equality and the necessity of equality of treatment establish the moral necessity of making the opportunities of university attendance available to everyone across all of these lines of difference. This is one of the basic justifications that have been offered in support of affirmative action.

The importance of creating a multicultural university environment follows from two things: the necessity of treating cultural differences with respect, and the recognition that all students can learn important things when they are induced to interact with people with very different values and beliefs. Moreover, there is the practical point that virtually everyone in our society will be called upon to work with people from different religious and cultural backgrounds -- and to do this successfully requires the acquiring of a large set of intercultural skills and competencies. (This is one of the reasons that corporations like GM intervened on behalf of the University of Michigan's defense of affirmative action.)

Finally, the need for creating a multicultural curriculum derives from the learning mission of the university. More diverse learning is better learning; it gives students a broader set of perspectives through which to frame the problems we confront, it nurtures the concrete skills needed in order to have productive collaborations with a diverse group of potential partners, and it provides a crucial antidote to the parochialism that goes along with a curriculum designed entirely out of a single cultural tradition. Monoculturalism is as stultifying in problem-solving as monocropping is harmful to agriculture.

In fact, it seems that universities may represent the best opportunity we have as a society to work through the challenge of creating a genuinely multiple-racial, multi-religious, and multi-ethnic society. We can experiment with different approaches to the fundamental values of pluralism and respect that the twenty-first century will demand. From this point of view, the truly successful multicultural university will point the way to a more fully democratic society in the future.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Social justice?

A major complaint that many people have had concerning the past eight years of the Bush administration is that it has had no interest in addressing issues of social justice in the United States. What are these issues? And what steps would a genuinely responsible government take to address them?

Here are a few core social justice issues that have become increasingly visible in the past eight years. Can we hope they will do better under the Obama administration?

  • Income inequality that has risen steeply since 1980
  • Disregard of the most basic human needs of poor people -- e.g. the indifferent Katrina relief response
  • Serious race gaps in quality of life and economic opportunity that have held steady or worsened
  • A worsening healthcare crisis affecting 47 million uninsured people
  • A financial and economic meltdown that differentially hurts low and middle income people
  • Poor quality schools in high poverty areas
  • Deteriorating conditions in many American cities
  • Homelessness and hunger rising
  • Environmental harms that are disproportionately found in urban poor populations
  • Tax reforms that greatly privilege the most affluent
  • Mistreatment of immigrant communities
What these issues have in common is the fact of inequality across large social groups, and a profound lack of a fair level of priority offered by government to address the issue. The inequality part of the picture has to do with gross inequalities in resources, opportunities, dignity, and outcomes for different groups. And the priority issue has to do with "voice" -- the degree to which claims by disadvantaged groups are taken seriously by policy makers. The rich and powerful have not had difficulty in gaining the ear of the Bush administration. But poor and middle-class people have knocked in vain.

Most generally, what might an Obama administration do to improve the situation of social justice in the United States? A first step -- and it is an important one -- is to give the signal to all parts of government that social justice is an important priority for this administration. This priority needs to affirm the centrality of equality, fairness, and a concern for improving the condition of the least-well-off in society. It is understood that every problem cannot be addressed at the same time, and that there are other important priorities as well. But social justice is generally compatible with other priorities, and it will be an important step forward to simply know that the government is concerned with these issues.

A related step that will further the cause of social justice will be to give voice to the disadvantaged within the process of policy formation. If poverty alleviation is to be back on the agenda, then make sure that the voices of poor people are heard as policies are formulated and discussed. And make sure that leaders are selected who have a genuine and innovative commitment to change. (A conference on poverty being sponsored in Michigan by the Department of Human Services (link) is a good example of a process that involves the voices of affected people in a meaningful way. One can hope that committed experts such as Rebecca Blank or Douglas Massey will be involved in the policy leadership group of the next administration.)

Beyond these general steps -- laying the groundwork for meaningful social justice reform -- one would hope the administration will take on a few key issues to be addressed first. And perhaps these should be --
  • Healthcare reform to assure that all Americans have access to adequate healthcare through insurance and government programs
  • a focused urban strategy for addressing the issues of poverty and limited opportunities in our nation's cities
  • implementation of a tax system that removes provisions favoring the most affluent individuals and corporations
This isn't the whole of a social justice agenda, but it would be a very good start. And progress on these issues would also result in progress on other issues as well, including the gaps in opportunity and quality of life experienced by disadvantaged groups today.

It seems almost self evident that a more just society is a stronger and more unified society. So a government that consistently works towards improving social justice will build a much stronger foundation for America's future in the coming half century.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Tom Joad

John Ford's powerful film Grapes of Wrath (1940) comes to mind in these days of financial crisis that many people want to compare to the Great Depression. Both the film and the Steinbeck novel have the virtue of "speaking truth to power" -- describing in a crystal-clear way how the decisions of the powerful have battered the suffering poor. The themes of foreclosure, loss of home and land, and protracted unemployment and dirth are very evocative of conditions in 1935 -- and they have a lot of resonance in many parts of the country today.

But in addition to the honesty of the portrayal of the human suffering associated with the Great Depression, the novel and film are also very clear in their reference to the potential power of poor people coming together in organizations to defend themselves against the forces that are crushing them. It's not a revolutionary film, but it is forthright in depicting the possibility of resistance. And resistance needs to take the form of collective action rather than individual action -- witness the powerful scene when the bulldozer shows up to level the Joad family's farmhouse and push them off the land. Resistance is threatened; it is recognized to be futile; and the bulldozer passes right through the wooden farmhouse, leaving only splintered boards and crushed pieces of furniture in its wake.

Some of the most powerful documents of the social reality of the Great Depression can be found in the black and white photography commissioned by the Farm Security Administration (FSA). The Library of Congress has a breathtaking archive of hundreds of thousands of photos taken by photographers such as Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, and Walker Evans. There are almost 4,000 images from Dorothea Lange herself -- including her iconic "Mother of Seven Children" that is probably the most recognizable image of the whole period. The collection is called "Documenting America," and it should be required reading for understanding America's twentieth-century history.

credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, fsa 8b31759

credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, fsa 8b29516

With millions of people on the road looking for work during the 1930s, hobos and hobo encampments were familiar sights. Here are two versions of the Hobo's Lullaby, by Arlo Guthrie and Emmylou Harris. (Try viewing the images in the first video along with the soundtrack of the second video -- Emmylou's version of the song is stronger, and the images included in the first video are spectacular.)

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Playing for Change

Bill Moyers has a great interview with Mark Johnson, creator of the music project called "Playing for Change." Johnson has spent ten years gathering the voices of musicians around the world into a beautifully produced music video representing hope and the power of human community. These are ordinary people in very poor communities, creating music that captures the heart and the conscience. In the video you see people in some of the poorest parts of the world coming together with voices that express dignity and struggle. Johnson is very compelling in his explanation to Moyers about why this project is important to him -- it will be important to everyone who views it.

Bill Moyers has a remarkable ability to see the things that are easily overlooked in our world -- the struggles and courage of ordinary people in this country and around the world, and to draw us into their world of experience. This program on Playing for Change will be very powerful for everyone who views it. It's a particularly "Obama" moment -- a hopeful glimpse into the reality of human problems and the ability of people of concern to help to find solutions that improve people's lives.