Life, Liberty and Technology
I was browsing at a bookstore the other day when a young brother, an engineering graduate of an historically Black college, walked up behind me with a group of his friends, talking loudly about a book he was looking for. “I’ve got to learn this CAD thing, man,” he said to one of his cronies. He browsed a bunch of books and groused that his alma mater never offered classes in a tool that is necessary for advancement in his profession. CAD stands for computer-aided design. CAD operators are making big bucks these days because they take drawings that some computer-illiterate engineers generate and turn them into something technologically acceptable. Many CAD operators also are engineers, but some don’t have degrees in engineering or any thing else. They learned CAD the hard way, with a manual and a machine. And now they can earn up to $50 an hour or more with their expertise. Youngblood said he’d have taken CAD classes if they’d offered them at his school. But the fact is that he went to a university with big rep and no computer system. Now, despite his B-plus grades, he’s in the job market with a deficit. The bookstore, not his BA, may well be his ticket to ride.He’s not the only one who suffers from lack of technological exposure. Whether someone is looking for a computer job or trying to work in a political campaign, computer expertise is a necessity in the 21st century. Yet, too many of our historically Black colleges and universities aren’t offering the full complement of computer classes that will prepare our youngsters for 21st century employment.Further, even at majority universities, there are African American students who are shying away from computer literacy because they find it “too hard” or “too challenging.” The tragedy is that there are faculty members who don’t push youngsters to step out of their box. They tell them that they don’t “need” technological expertise because there is a demand for teachers, social workers and other nontechnical workers.The fact is that technology has slithered its tentacles into virtually every occupation. No, you don’t need to program a computer to be a social worker, but you may need computer literacy to keep track of your caseload. Working well with your hands may get you over as a mechanic, but you’ll need some computer facility to use the new diagnostic machines. People skills will be the basis of your life as a political operative, but your ability to tap into a database may make the difference between the success or failure of a direct mailing.I’m agitated about the digital divide, and the technology gap because everything I read about the workplace of the future suggests that computer expertise is an essential. The jobs with the fastest growth rely on computer expertise. We’ll need double today’s number of computer engineers, systems analysts and computer support specialists. More than that, though, it isn’t likely that faculties of the past can prepare young people for jobs of the future, like desktop publishers webmasters and Local Area Network, or LAN operators.I hardly think that the youth of the future are waiting for malleable faculty to lead them by the hand to willing computers. Indeed, self-determination is a key component of a liberal education. Students have to decide what they want and go get it, inside or outside the classroom. Faculty members have never been perfect or infallible griots.At the same time, the data suggest that too many African Americans are missing the technology boat and that many think it’s OK to be computer illiterate. About one-third of Whites have Internet access, compared with just 12 percent of all African Americans. The gap narrows in higher education, with larger numbers having access to the Internet. Still, too many see computer literacy as a secondary goal, not a priority.Yet, a glance at the jobs of the future suggests that computer skills are of critical importance for professional and managerial workers. Consideration of the way technology has changed the labor market further suggests that even when technology is not the focus, it is a factor in all 21st-century employment, especially because it may change the terms and conditions of employment for so many workers. Telecommuting, home-based businesses and freelance opportunities all expand because of the presence of computer technology in our lives.Here’s the thing, though. Unless students understand the pivotal importance of computer technology in their lives, they’ll ignore it. And unless HBCU administrators prioritize computer expertise, an entire generation of African American youngsters will be pushed to the periphery of the technology revolution. People who read the U.S. Constitution say they have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In the 21st century, they also may have the right to technology.But that right will only be recognized when the centrality of technology is acknowledged by a range of professionals who understand that their lives have been enriched because of the computer, who acknowledge that they’d like to share those riches with their students.Part of the African American pursuit of happiness has to be a pursuit for technological literacy. Is there leadership out there that will build state-of-the-art technology centers at our HBCUs? Or are we willing to cede the next century to the more prepared because too many of us think it doesn’t matter. In some ways we have to be clear about future trends. Technology may determine our liberty. It may determine the way that we live.
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