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Preparing students for "the end of work." (rethinking American education)

Radical changes in the economy and government require that we turn to the Third Sector - the "civil society" - as the focal point for rethinking American education.

The shift from the Industrial Age to the Information Age is transforming our civilization. Preparing the next generation for the 21st century and a radically different world requires a rethinking of the very purpose of American education.

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

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

Acknowledging that both the manufacturing and service industries are quickly reengineering their infrastructures and automating their production processes, many mainstream economists and politicians have pinned their hopes on new job opportunities 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 work force and not a mass labor work force. 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 (the first sector) and government (the second sector) 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 work and with the government retreating from its traditional role of employer of last resort, the nation's nonprofit sector - the Third Sector - may be the best hope for creating new kinds of employment for the millions of displaced workers cast off by corporate and government reengineering. The implications for American education are far-reaching and may require a complete rethinking of the mission of public school education in the coming years.

The Promise of the Third Sector

For most of this century, American education focused on preparing students for the marketplace and the responsibilities of representative government. In the coming century, finding a balance between market, government, and the civil sector will become essential. Broadening the mission of American education to include a renewed commitment to the civic life of the country now needs to be given equal priority if we are to address the tumultuous economic and political changes sweeping the country.

While historians are quick to credit the market economy and our democratic form of government for America's greatness, the civil society has played an equally significant role in defining our way of life. For more than 200 years, the Third Sector has shaped the American experience, helping transform a frontier culture into a modern society. The nation's first schools and colleges, hospitals, social service organizations, youth organizations, religious organizations, social justice organizations, conservation and environmental protection groups, theaters, orchestras, art galleries, libraries, museums, fraternal orders, community development organizations, volunteer fire departments, and civilian security patrols - all are institutions of the Third Sector.

Today, civic organizations serve people in every neighborhood in the country. Their reach and scope often eclipse both the private and public sectors, touching lives sometimes more profoundly than the forces of the marketplace or the bureaucracies of government. The civil sector has traditionally played a critical mediating role between the economy and the government, performing services that the other two sectors are unwilling or incapable of handling. Often this involves acting as an advocate on behalf of groups whose interests are ignored by the marketplace or compromised in the councils of government.

There are currently more than 1.4 million nonprofit organizations in the United States whose primary goal is to create social capital. Social capital is based on the notion of giving freely of one's time, energy, talent, and skills to help others and advance the interests of the larger community. By doing so, each individual's own interests are optimized.

Community activity is substantially different from market activity, in which exchanges between people are always commercial in nature and based on the supposition that the well-being of the rest of society is best secured by each individual pursuing his or her own material self-interest. Unlike market activity, community service stems from an understanding of the interconnectedness of all of life. It is first and foremost a social exchange, although often with economic consequences to both the beneficiary and the benefactor.

While the business sector makes up 80 percent of the economic activity in terms of gross national product (GNP) in the United States and the government sector accounts for an additional 14 percent, the civil sector currently contributes more than 6 percent of the GNP and is responsible for 10 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.

The assets of the Third Sector now equal nearly half the assets of the federal government. A study conducted in the 1980s estimated that the expenditure of America's nonprofit voluntary organizations exceeded the gross national product of all but seven nations. Although the civil sector is half the size of government in total employment and total earnings, it has been growing twice as fast as both the government and market sectors.

The Third Sector is the bonding force, the social glue that unites the diverse interests of the American people into a cohesive social identity. If a single defining characteristic sums up the unique qualities of being an American, it is our capacity to join together in civic associations to serve one another. Yet, strangely enough, we rarely examine this central aspect of the American character and experience in our classrooms. Instead, our children learn about the virtues of the marketplace and the checks and balances built into our representative form of government. The Third Sector, if it is mentioned at all, is usually glossed over as a footnote to the American experience, despite its critical role in forging our way of life.

Now, however, in the wake of diminishing job prospects in both the market and public sectors, it behooves us to rethink the purpose of education to include preparation for work in the nation's Third Sector. The increasing pace of automation and reengineering in the first two sectors is going to free up the labor of millions of young people for potential employment in our sprawling civil society.

Preparing the Next Generation for the Civil Society

A quiet revolution, reflecting the new interest in the Third Sector, has been spreading through the nation's schools and colleges over the past 10 years. In an effort to create a seamless web between school and community, "civil education" is designed to help young people develop the skills and acquire the values necessary for civic life. Advancing the goals of a civil education requires that educators look to the nonprofit sector, in addition to the marketplace and government, to inform curriculum development, pedagogy, and the organization of schooling.

Civil education is gaining ground in schools around the country. Many school systems have established service learning activities enabling students to earn credit for their involvement in neighborhood nonprofit organizations, service-oriented businesses, and other Third Sector enterprises. Some schools have established character education and citizen education programs to promote civic values. A growing number of schools have begun to recognize the power of connecting civil education with a range of academic studies.

At a time when teachers, parents, and communities are concerned about the growing alienation, detachment, and aimlessness of students, civil education engenders a sense of personal responsibility and accountability, fosters self-esteem and leadership, and, most of all, allows empathy to grow. Civil education can give a student 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.

Civil education also provides a much needed alternative frame of reference for a generation increasingly immersed in the simulated worlds of telecommunications. Television, computers, and cyberspace are pervasive forces in the lives of our students. The new Information Age media technologies offer an array of innovative teaching tools and learning environments for American students. Still, a growing number of educators worry that children growing up in front of the computer screen and TV set are at risk of being less exposed to the kind of authentic, real-world experiences that are a necessary part of normal social education and child development. Civil education, combined with the appropriate use of the new Information Age technologies, can act as an antidote to the increasingly isolated world of virtual reality.

To ensure success, educators will need to incorporate civil education into the heart of the school experience. By weaving the rich 200-year-old historical legacy and values of the Third Sector into every aspect of curriculum, they will provide a context for children to understand the importance of service learning in the community. The heroes and heroines of the many organizations, movements, and causes that have helped foster America's civil society offer historical role models for children to emulate.

All of this will require significant shifts in approaches to teaching and learning, including efforts to integrate civic values into the school process. We will need to: (1) expand opportunities for students to become more involved in their communities and make service learning an integral part of the academic experience, (2) elicit more involvement of civic organizations with their local schools, (3) view the civil society as a source of important and viable work, (4) encourage greater student participation in the modeling of the learning experience, and (5) give teachers, students, families, and civic organizations a genuine voice in school-level policymaking.

At the dawn of the Information Age, we face the challenge of redirecting the course of education in the United States so that our young people will be ready to wrestle with both the demands of the new global economy and the austere new realities facing government. We must bear in mind that the strength of the marketplace and the effectiveness of our democratic form of government have always depended on the vitality of America's civil sector. It is the wellspring of our spirit as a people.

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, however, we must redefine 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 Third Sector is, perhaps, the single most important task facing educators and the American school system in the years ahead.

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 (New York: Putnam, 1995) and President of the Foundation on Economic Trends, 1660 L St., N.W., Suite 216, Washington, DC 20036.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
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Author:Rifkin, Jeremy
Publication:Educational Leadership
Date:Feb 1, 1997
Words:2080
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