American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 26

Changes in the Context for
Creating Knowledge

George Keller

The Paradigm Shift
Dennis O’Brien

The Paradoxes of Transnational Learning
Susanne Hoeber Rudolph

The Impact of Demographic and Social Changes on
Higher Education and the Creation of Knowledge

George Keller
Consultant, Higher Education
(formerly University of Pennsylvania)

The United States is going through some profound changes that have begun to affect colleges and universities and are likely to have further consequences in the coming decades. Though the changes are of numerous kinds, I will point here to just three demographic changes and three social shifts. Then I will suggest some of the ways they are influencing the practice of teaching and scholarship and the creation of knowledge.

The three demographic changes are immigration, the dissolution of the traditional family structure, and the emerging age profile of U.S. society.

Since the 1965 amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act, the United States has been undergoing the greatest surge in immigrants in its history. For more than two decades now approximately 1 million persons have entered the country legally and illegally, equaling the previous two peak years for immigration, 1907 and 1914, when 1.2 million were admitted. In the fiscal year of 1993, for example, the United States admitted 880,000 persons legally, and another 200,000 to 300,000 immigrants are estimated to have entered illegally. For three decades, the United States has been accepting more immigrants and refugees each year than all the other developed countries of the world combined.

Unlike earlier waves of immigration, approximately 45 percent have been Latinos, and roughly 40 percent have been Asians. By the year 2010, nearly 30 percent of all young people under 16 will be in just three states: California, Florida, and Texas.

The second change is in family formation and child rearing. The stable two-parent family with two or more children is increasingly rare. The number of one-parent families has risen from approximately 4 million in 1970 to 8.5 million in 1990; one-fourth of all U.S. children under 18 are now in one-parent families. In Britain the percentage with one parent is 17 percent, in France and Germany about 12 percent. Three in 10 births in the United States are now out of wedlock. For African Americans, two-thirds of all births are non-marital; and the illegitimacy ratio for whites has quintupled in the past 30 years. Moreover, the divorce rate has reached 38 percent of all marriages; there were 1,187,000 divorces in 1993. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights argues that illegitimacy and divorces are “responsible for essentially all of the growth in poverty since 1970” (qtd. in Lawler). In 1990, 80 percent of the unmarried women who had a child before finishing high school were living in poverty, while only 8 percent of the married women who completed high school and had a baby after the age of 19 were in poverty homes.

As anyone who reads the newspapers knows, the percentage of children and teens in foster care is up; child neglect and abuse is increasing; teenage and preteen crime is widespread; and orphanage is returning. For educators, the decline of learning in American middle and high schools has been steep, and antisocial and anti-intellectual behavior is spreading among youths. Some campuses have begun regulating manners, speech, and behavior.

The third demographic change is the aging of American society. As the number of births has declined and better health care, nutrition, exercise, and family finances contribute to keeping older people alive longer, the population is getting older. Nearly 13 percent of Americans are now 65 or older. There are 11 million more retirees than teenagers. By the year 2020, the number of Americans over 50 will soar 75 percent, to more than one-third of the population; and the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that in 2020, 9.5 to 10 percent will be over 80 years of age.

Today’s elderly are the healthiest and wealthiest old people in history. Their poverty rate is lower and median household wealth is greater than that of any other American age group. The over-50s have as much discretionary income as all other U.S. age groups combined, about half the nation’s total. The percentage of the U.S. federal budget going to retirees has gone from 19 percent in 1980 to nearly 30 percent in 1993. In addition, the elderly have become a powerful political force. The American Association of Retired Persons, or AARP, now has 31 million members over age 50 — one of every five voters — and is the second largest membership organization in America (after the Roman Catholic Church).

* * * * *

Of the numerous social changes, I think three may be especially consequential for U.S. higher education.

Socioeconomically, the U.S. population is becoming more polarized and less middle class. Between 1973 and 1990 the poorest fifth of population declined in income about 12 percent, while the richest fifth increased about 25 percent. The United States now has the largest “underclass” of any developed country, with the highest crime rate, rate of drug abuse, and percentage of homeless people. On the other hand, America has the largest number of Nobel Prize winners, research scholars, artists, female executives, trained physicians, and skilled musicians and poets.

Studies suggest that three factors are especially determining: family structure, level of education, and work patterns. For instance, the growing upper middle-income group is often composed of a married couple, both college educated, and both working.

A second social change is the growing importance to Americans of the Pacific Rim countries. In 1979 U.S. trade with Asia surpassed trade with Europe, and has been growing since. Long Beach, San Francisco, and Seattle are replacing Boston, New York, and Baltimore as leading seaports. Japan has become one of the world’s great industrial and commercial powers, and China, with nearly one-fifth of the world’s population, is breaking out of Maoist politics and economics.

For colleges and universities this poses an academic challenge. Our intellectual roots are in Israel, Greece, Rome, and Western Europe, and the curricula of most colleges focus on that area. But our social and economic life will increasingly consist of exchanges with Asian countries, and with Latin American nations and Arab oil states.

The third change is the outburst of new communications technology: computers, cassettes, films, satellite transmission, Internet, and the like. It is as significant as the invention and spread of printed books in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It has already resulted in the use of new ways to gather, store, and exchange information, novel teaching styles, new kinds of libraries, and radically different exchanges among computer-literate persons around the world. One in four telephone calls in the United States is now a facsimile transmission. Classicist Jay David Bolter wrote in his 1991 book Writing Space that, “Print will no longer define the organization and presentation of knowledge. . . . Electronic technology offers us a new kind of book and new ways to write and read” (2).

* * * * *

The repercussions of these six changes — and others — have begun to be felt throughout academe, and will help shape the creation and dissemination of knowledge in the years ahead.

The increasing number of Latino and Asian students means different food in the campus cafeterias, different speakers and campus events, and more demands for separate residential living. It means we shall have to train many new Latino and African American scholars, both of whom are in short supply, as exemplars for the young. It has already created a movement toward “multiculturalism” and major substitutions in liberal education’s canon, which is being denounced as a form of Western chauvinism and cultural imperialism.

The dissolution of the traditional, nuclear family has prompted the introduction of new speech and behavior codes at universities, increased student services, additional counseling, and a massive increase in remedial education at most colleges. It has also resulted in alarming increases in financial aid requirements that colleges must provide — some institutions now give back one-third of their tuition revenues in grants to students — and special summer programs on campus to help prepare students for college work. Colleges have had to invent costly substitutes for parental guidance, discipline, motivation, and support.

The emerging gerontocracy has brought a new constituency into higher education: retirees. Over 45 percent of all registered students in U.S. institutions are now 25 years old or older. Universities are moving from being educational camps for the young to serving like public libraries for persons 15 to 75 years old. Communities like Ithaca, New York; Oberlin, Ohio; Santa Barbara, California; and Sarasota, Florida have become new living-learning locations for elderly persons who wish to continue learning. Florida’s Eckerd College and New York City’s Columbia University both have new academies for senior retired scholars who wish to continue teaching and research. Hundreds of colleges and universities now have academic programs in gerontology or geriatric medicine, dentistry, and psychiatry.

The socioeconomic polarization has prompted an increase in the number of honors programs, fresh demands for three-year baccalaureates, and a swelling number of graduate students. More than one-half of all masters degrees awarded by U.S. institutions have been bestowed in the past 20 years. At the other end, a rising number of those wishing admission to college are unprepared for collegiate study. Many urban community colleges have been transformed into literacy centers and remedial institutes.

The expanding connections with Asian countries have begun to stimulate more courses in Chinese and Japanese language and culture, new programs abroad in Japan, and increased exchanges with Pacific Rim countries. Religion programs are now more comparative and inclusive; and international trade has altered national economic planning models.

Because of new electronic hardware and software, nearly every classroom and campus library will need to be renovated, as some have already been.

Huge training programs for students and faculty are being established to keep undergraduates and scholars abreast of the latest electronic communication techniques and possibilities. As Richard Lanham points out in his recent book The Electronic Word, modern electronics may transform scholarship as we know it.

* * * * *

For the most learned persons in American society and their research, the changes I have briefly described seem to presage a new tension.

On the one hand, demographic, international, and social shifts are pulling scholars deeper into ethnic, gender, and social class studies, and into unique forms of knowledge. More research is devoted to analyzing distinctive voices and styles, and rhetoric is returning as a principal subject, aided by “deconstructionist” attacks. There is a growing cynicism about universal values and standards, and about the possibility of finding “truth.” We live in an age of disenchantment, of relativities, as Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has documented so well. There are, it is said, only many kinds of knowledge; and all the kinds are subjective and context-bound and not really objective. The cold war era may have ended, but a new era of culture wars has begun.

On the other hand, technology is pulling everyone toward certain kinds of standardization, as is contemporary mathematical and scientific research. Scholars still search for underlying similarities, unifying theories, and fundamental, abiding truths. Many persons still subscribe to the idea of timeless verities, and most universities still demand objective, unbiased teaching and scholarship.

The learned societies, one of America’s most precious possessions, may need to collaborate on an analysis of what constitutes proper instruction in today’s higher learning and what is appropriate scholarship and research in the new environment of academic life.

Works Cited

Atlas, James. Battle of the Books: The Curriculum Debate in America. New York: W.W. Norton, 1990.

Bolter, Jay David. Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1991.

Hunter, James Davison. Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. New York: Basic Books, 1991.

Lanham, Richard. The Electronic Word: Democracy, Tecbnology, and the Arts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Lawler, Philip. “The New Counterculture,” The Wall Street Journal, August 13, 1993.

Taylor, Charles. The Ethics of Authenticity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.

——. Sources of the Self. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989.