Analysis & Opinions - The Boston Globe

Education for the Long Term

July 2, 2007

I WISH to present an old Chinese vision and a brand new American vision, both of which have public policy implications regarding the kind of society we want to be.

The Chinese vision is contained in an ancient proverb that goes: "If your vision is for one year, plant rice; if your vision is for 10 years, plant trees; but if your vision is for 100 years, educate children." This language is poetic and embraces education of children as a means of success projected into the long term.

One could argue, however, that educating children alone in the current digital age where the competition is global and the economy is knowledge-based provides an incomplete remedy. Adults should be educated too. My American vision is of a country with no digital divide, in which everyone has access to high-speed broadband service.

What we perceive of as the long-term used to be a segment of time in the distant future when our children and grandchildren and their children would be living our legacy. But because the pace of change is ever quickening, the long term is perhaps only five to 10 years away . Beyond that era, our ability to accurately predict future events or trends gets increasingly speculative and becomes, at best, guesses.

If the long-term future is speculative, especially regarding matters of technology, then how do we know how to respond to what we don't know about or have any real expertise about? Who then should decide what our desired outcomes should be: politicians, technocrats, unelected agency officials, or whatever?

The critical question is not just an issue of technology, but raises the underlying issue, What kind of society do we want? When the question is phrased in this manner, it becomes clear that long-term public policy about information technology inherently involves society's core values concerning power and politics, philosophy, sociology, economics and justice. Therefore, the answer ought to come from "we the people " ourselves, after necessary public discussions, debates, teach-ins, arguments, and democratic conversations in open, public arenas and forums.

We have many choices in answering the question as to what America wants to be in the ever-contracting long-term future. We can choose between democratic and plutocratic, inclusive or exclusive, integrated or segregated, free and open or authoritarian. We can choose a society where there is equal opportunity for all or just for some. But however we choose, there must first be a vision regarding a better society than that which would develop without planning.

I wish to share my vision of a possible future where the digital divide — a term that implies inequality of access to Internet connectivity, to relevant information, education, knowledge, and opportunity in digital formats and in digital networks — is eliminated in the United States by adapting a national ubiquitous high-speed broadband policy.

Imagine what American society would be like if there were no digital divides and all the people of the United States had ready access to really fast Internet connectivity, to relevant content, to essential online services, and to the capacity — through literacy, skills, and motivation — to use all of it effectively.

Wouldn't such a future infrastructure enable America to be a competitive player in the emerging global knowledge economy? Wouldn't this empower our workforce to be more productive, flexible, responsive, creative, and better trained? Wouldn't our citizens be better informed and more engaged in civil society and more readily participate in the process of democracy?

Wouldn't adult illiteracy be reduced and children from pre kindergarten through and including post-college education be better adaptive and more critical thinkers and actors with access to lifelong learning and education opportunities? Wouldn't having a national broadband infrastructure provide better and more efficient medical and healthcare services for all people, including those with physical handicaps or disabilities?

Wouldn't businesses and individual entrepreneurs be more prosperous and consumers more satisfied if everyone were connected to a national, integrated high-speed broadband network? And wouldn't this kind of policy outcome improve our national security and economic well-being?

I think all the questions I asked can be answered in the affirmative. The only things preventing this vision of digital inclusion are the failure of members of Congress to share this vision and the lack of leadership and political will to implement it.

The ancient Chinese vision should inform our information policies. But those policies should also be imbued with the American can-do spirit so that all people , adults and children, can be lifelong learners.

Nolan Bowie, a guest columnist, is an adjunct lecturer in public policy and a senior fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Bowie, Nolan.“Education for the Long Term.” The Boston Globe, July 2, 2007.