December 3rd, 2010
December, Council of Graduate Schools meetings, Washington D.C. Last night I heard what seemed to be an endless stream of sirens from my hotel room. That’s some fire, I thought. I finally got up to see what was happening: a cortege of police cars and limos and flashing lights stretching a mile long. Turns out it was just Obama being escorted back to his big white home, which is only two blocks away. Man, must be fun racing through town like that every time you want to grab a hamburger or something. I admit I was excited: that’s likely the closest I’ll get to the President of the Free World, watching his tinted-window car speed through D.C.
On the other side of the Mall, a gigantic white stone monument is going up to honour Martin Luther King. The MLK Memorial, as everyone now calls it, has generated its own controversy, as a bunch of internationals have been called in to help work on the scaffolding and nuts and bolts. The local news featured some local citizens complaining about those foreigners. Some irony, isn’t it? Think MLK would have appreciated one group running down another? Was he as parochial and small-minded as some of the people protesting importing foreign workers? Mind boggling.
The CGS conference is large, fun, and typically uneven, with some great sessions, some less so. A strong highlight this morning was plenary speaker Martin Walker, utterly charming and impressively eloquent. Walker is Senior Director of the Global Business Policy Council, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus, United Press International, and Senior Scholar of the Woodrow Wilson International Chair. He delivered. His talk was all about what the world is going to look like—for academics, graduate studies, and the rest of us—over the next 50 years. Talk about big picture….
It’s not as if what he told us was fresh news, but it’s all in the packaging, the delivery, the emphasis. Walker stressed the way shift is going to happen. It’s one thing to offer an inventory of demographic trends; it’s another to do so in such a lively and analytically provocative fashion.
For instance, we know the whole planet is aging quickly, but do we know just how quickly and what the effects of this trend might be on education? China is the behemoth whose economy holds the balance of world power, but when you consider that the country is growing old at an astonishing clip you have to wonder. With the one-child policy having been in effect for decades, and with countless abortions having been performed on female pregnancies, the country will not-too-distantly have way more boys and men and a lot of them way too old for any healthy nation to survive.
Further, the birthrates in the Middle East are rapidly declining, for lots of complicated reasons, some, Walker argues, having to do with the Oprah effect. Ms O’s television show is hugely popular in Iran, the Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and so on: what effect does watching Oprah’s TV revelations about the vulnerabilities of the female body have on the burqa-clad women of Ryad or Dubai? It’s hard to know, but Walker hints that women might be thinking of not having babies in those traditionally large-family cultures.
Latin America: fertility is on the decline. So it is in North America, surely, and in Russia men are dying quite literally by the millions of alcoholism and AIDS. Shift is happening.
Much can be made of such figures, as Walker demonstrated. The future is always uncertain but knowing your demographic trends can help you prepare. What needs will the planet have in 2025, with the bulk of its population over 80? Over 80! That’s a staggering statistic.
One thing is clear: graduate education will be very much in demand as an older population seeks to satisfy its quality of life. But traditional forms of graduate education will be under severe pressure to be more nimble, diverse, and, no doubt, virtual to meet these demands.
Lifelong learning will acquire more resonance, or should, in the wake of such facts and figures. Most of us have been mumbling about Walker’s session ever since. That is—until Alan ‘Hawkeye” Alda got on my elevator. That’s right. He is a guest speaker tomorrow afternoon because he has been pursuing a new career as an advocate of science education, and apparently he has some show biz tricks up his sleeve for us. There were about ten stunned conference participants on the elevator. Unbelievable, but no one said anything! Honestly, I couldn’t help it. I tugged a bit on his coat and told him I was really looking forward to hearing him tomorrow. He’s Alan Alda, people. Talk to him. I had to make contact. It worked. He said, thanks, I am looking forward to it, too.
Life can be sweet inside the beltway.