In the mid-19th century, the United States was faced with the prospect that it was not going to be a competitive nation if it did not educate a larger swath of its population beyond those being educated at Ivy League institutions. Today we are, again, facing the harsh reality that our educational pipeline must align itself with the opportunities of today and tomorrow.
A century and a half ago, the country responded by establishing a group of land-grant universities and historically black colleges to educate the "common folk," and the sons and daughters of newly-freed slaves. The aim was to offer a public university education that would imbue citizens with the skills they needed to become innovators, scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs in order to build a national and international economy. The talent that has come out of these institutions has built the America we know today.
But now, that talent must be called upon to help us figure out how we as a diverse nation will continue along a path of common prosperity and common ideals for the common good — a path essential to a strong and vibrant democracy. It is time for the nation to significantly reinvest in Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and minority-serving institutions that have created the middle class in this country. Put differently, America now desperately needs higher education to keep our democracy and our democratic principles intact.
Given the deep divisions following the results of the presidential election along racial, religious, gender and economic lines, our campuses must play an outsized role in simply keeping us as a nation from becoming unglued as we continue to grow in diversity. Now, more than ever, our campuses must be vigilant in offering diverse and inclusive curricula to challenge our students to wrestle with vacuous stereotypes they may hold of those who are different than they are. We must promote climates on our campuses that are void of hate, racism, sexism and xenophobia. An important element of this process is ensuring civility and respect in the discussion of ideas that might make individuals reconsider their own biases and predilections. Let me be clear: Not all ideas have equal merit, but we need to ensure that we use rational and respectful methods to examine them. The ability and willingness to engage in such a learning process are important prerequisites for harmonious living in our diverse nation.
A strong liberal arts background today must undergird a strong STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) background. In an age of social media, students need an education that will enable them to think critically and not be hoodwinked by every cockamamie fake story they read in their newsfeed. We need to recommit to making general education, rooted in the humanities, a strong foundation for all students, regardless of major field of study, because this helps to develop the critical-thinking skills so desperately needed for innovation and understanding of others.
Campuses are in a unique position to provide evidence-based, unbiased sources of information and forums for discussing controversial topics. And we must recommit to our role as places where the community of scholars and the broader community can comfortably interact.
We must redouble our efforts to prepare the present and future workforce. Success in a rapidly changing, global economy requires the phasing out of noncompetitive industries and the creation of new ones. There is little doubt that the increased use of technology has displaced large numbers of workers over the past several decades, in industries such as steel, manufacturing and textiles, and that large groups of people have been adversely affected by these seismic economic changes, which has bred understandable resistance to a new economic reality in which they don't have the appropriate skills to compete. While much of this was evident in the voting pattern in the recent election, it has been a visible and often-ignored problem for decades. Education and appropriate training are the answers.
I know that preventing an evolving economy from creating a stark divide between so-called winners and losers is far more difficult to accomplish in practice than in theory. But, at a minimum, individuals must have the education required to be competitive as the economy and the nation's demographics change.
America will never again look like it did around the turn of the century, and its industries will not resemble what they were 40 or 50 years ago. Higher education must be one of the antidotes to get us through a period where we emerge on the other side poised to continue being a global leader for generations to come.
David Wilson is president of Morgan State University, a doctoral research institution in Baltimore, Md. His email is: firstname.lastname@example.org.