THE BLOG
11/19/2014 12:42 pm ET Updated Jan 19, 2015

Breaking a Silence -- Colleges and the Changing World of Work

"The Changing World of Work -- What Do We Need of Higher Education?" On January 21, 2015 at the National Press Club in Washington, a group of civic, educational, business, labor and community groups will launch a national conversation on this question.

Nancy Cantor, Chancellor of Rutgers-Newark, David Mathews, President of the Kettering Foundation, Jamie Studley, Deputy Undersecretary of Education, Byron White, Vice President for Community Engagement at Cleveland State University and others will discuss the challenges facing the country because of technological change, globalization and the aftermath of the Great Recession. Bill Muse, president of the National Issues Forum and I, representing Augsburg College and coordinator of the design team for the conversation, will discuss the rationale.

Wages have been stagnate for years. As Steven Baker put it in the New York Times, the recession, "devastating for working people everywhere in America," followed decades of largely flat wages.

Moreover, the nature of work relations are changing dramatically. More and more employers depend on contingent workers -- freelancers, independent contractors, temporary employees. Contingent workers are about one-third of all US workers. The percentage is expected to rise overall to 40 percent by the year 2020. More than half the teachers in higher education are contract instructors, with little or no job security.

Changes in the world of work may be as sweeping as the Industrial Revolution. Most Americans are worried and feel powerless to do much about them. Today's policy discussions focus on how to prepare college students for the fast-changing workforce and related issues such as cost-cutting, student debt, STEM and distance learning.

But discussions over the last two years on the purpose of higher education which form a background of this national conversation have shown another dynamic.

There is a gap between today's policy debates and the deeper concerns of the citizenry. One woman in Kansas, quoted in Divided We Fail, Jean Johnson's report on an earlier nation-wide conversation, "Shaping Our Future," on the purposes of higher education, expressed the widespread view that higher education should get students out of their bubbles. "If you have a higher education...you've been exposed to different cultures, different lifestyles, different religions, different belief systems. You have a heart and mind that are both opened."

"Shaping Our Future" involved several thousand students, parents, professors, employers and others. The forums not only surfaced the ideal of an education which opens hearts and minds, but also worry about what's being lost. In Maryland, a senior citizen said that higher education "used to be the kind of thing that created our thinkers and our leaders...they would have that broad array of courses and ideas and cultures."

Others argued that the society has lost sight of education's true meaning. "When people are worried about going to school to get the job, to make money..education, in and of itself, is no longer sacred," said one man in Colorado.

I was reminded of the opening chapter in Betty Friedan's 1964 book, The Feminine Mystique, which helped to launch the modern women's movement.

The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years... It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction...There was no word of this yearning in the millions of words written about women, for women, in all the columns, books and articles by experts telling women their role.

Women felt isolated, thinking that everyone else was fulfilled.

Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night -- she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question: 'Is this all?'

Over the last year, we have heard many more examples of naming problems without names. Building on "Shaping Our Future," a design team with representatives of six colleges and universities in the Twin Cites -- Augsburg, Century College, Hamline University, Metropolitan State University, Minneapolis Community and Technical College and St. Paul College -- and Minnesota Campus Compact listened to concerns from more than a thousand people about the changing world of work and higher education. The conversations also acquainted people with the history and current examples of higher education's public and democratic contributions, largely unknown or forgotten in today's environment, when colleges usually bill themselves as a ticket to individual economic success and career advance.

Conversations surfaced the same unease about the individualist orientation of today's education which we had heard in "Shaping Our Future." People raised searching questions about the meaning of "success" and the American Dream, as well as today's reliance on electing leaders to solve our problems for us -- the very meaning of "democracy" in conventional discussion, which defines democracy as simply elections.

People generally begin feeling overwhelmed by the changes taking place. The first option in the forthcoming issue guide is that colleges should prepare students for jobs. This is the option most people have heard about and the only thing that seems possible and realistic.

But options two and three expand the conversation dramatically with many real world examples:

• Educate for leadership and change. It's higher education's duty to develop effective citizen leaders -- men and women who can create jobs, effect change and build a better society.

• Build robust communities. Colleges and universities are vital anchor institutions in their local communities. They need to harness that power to create social change and drive economic development.

These options help people to develop a public language for talking about their submerged worries and discontents. As people hear stories of a wider range of possibilities, the discussion generates a change in mood, a shift from "me" to "we."

By itself, the conversation on the changing world of work and higher education's role is not going to transform public policy. But it may help break a silence.

And if it catalyzes many more conversations and public work growing out of them, we could develop the public will to build the educational system which we need.