Chancellor Robert E. Johnson on the future of civility and education

A civil society requires new mindset for future of citizenship

John Adams had it right 230 years ago when he drafted the Massachusetts Constitution, calling on citizens to “cherish the interests of literature and the sciences.” Those of us responsible for preparing a new generation for the future of work and citizenship would be wise to read and heed his words today.

If we simply educate young people only in skill sets without providing them a purposeful mindset, we are setting them and our civil society up for failure. The engineering students who know how to build a bridge across a river but are incapable of building bridges among the diverse cultures in their workplace and communities will be shortchanging themselves and their democracy. We will be guilty of committing educational malpractice.

Adams and his colleagues, looking to build a democracy for the long term, made clear that, “Wisdom, and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people” was and always will be “necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties.”

They knew that the “promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures” was critical to building a future of economic prosperity in their new nation. But they also believed that the future of the democracy depended on a citizenry equipped with “humanity, and general benevolence, public and private charity,” as well as values such honesty and even “good humor.”

Many of today’s climate-change deniers were educated in our universities, yet they have chosen to set aside reason and facts in favor of short-term political and financial gain. They somehow lost the humanity that tells us to take action because we are part of something bigger than ourselves.

Today, our nation is struggling to re-engineer its economy in the face of rapid automation, digitization, globalization. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development predicts that 14% of today’s jobs will be eliminated by machines and another 32% will be disrupted. The nearly 2,000 students who graduated from UMass Dartmouth this spring will face a future of work that will include upwards of 15 different jobs in five different industries, including some industries that do not even exist today.

Growing up in Detroit in the 1960s and 70s, I saw the emergence of the great middle class built from the ground up by people working by the sweat of their brow at Ford, GM and Chrysler. As noted in a 2016 report by Klaus Schwab for the World Economic Forum, by 1990 the Big Three U.S. automakers had 1.2 million workers, $250 billion of revenue and a total value of $36 billion. We now have a much bigger three – Facebook, Apple, Google – that as of 2014 generated $247 billion of revenue and $1.1 TRILLION of value with just 137,000 workers.
This has created a very real and understandable fear of economic dislocation, coupled with accelerating income inequality, that has widened our historic national divisions along racial, partisan, religious, and generational fault lines.

The Class of 2019 has stepped into a fear-laden civic quagmire where ideology has overpowered science. Bias has replaced reason. The line between entertainment and journalism has all but disappeared. We are left with an inability to make common-sense decisions on issues ranging from health care to gun rights, from income inequality to infrastructure, from global warming to war. We have lost the ability to compromise and any desire to learn from people who disagree with us. We are incapable of disagreeing with each other without hating each other.

At the same time, the Class of 2019 is entering a workplace that is increasingly diverse in terms of race, age, gender, sexual preference and identification, and religion. By 2024, 4 of 10 people over the age of 65 will still be in the workforce, carrying with them the values they developed decades earlier, prior to 9/11, the smartphone, the #MeToo movement, the legalization of gay marriage, and other societal disruptions.

By 2024, less than 60 percent of the labor force will be classified as white/non-Hispanic, down from 75 percent in 1994. One out of five workers will be Hispanic.

For our economy and our democracy to prosper, we need to revisit the educational principles embedded in our commonwealth’s Constitution and intentionally develop more than just a skill set in our students. Our economy and our democracy need the Class of 2019 and all those that follow to develop a mindset that allows them to thrive in both the workplace and public square.

That means nurturing their sense of humanity, curiosity, creativity, and resilience. and their ability to collaborate with people who have entirely different life experiences.

And, as Adams knew well, a little “good humor” would go a long way.

This opinion editorial originally appeared in the Cape Cod Times on July 28, 2019.

Departments Chancellors Office, News and Public Information