Harvard, Solzhenitsyn and a Christian Take on Urban Education

For important urban context (1.1) see “As jobs fade away” in the May 8th Economist.

This is an excellent overview of what is significantly impacting our lower-educated urban population. In summary, over the past 30 years or so, technology has drastically improved efficiencies and therefore drastically eliminated whole classes of middle-skilled jobs that provided middle class lifestyles. As a result, there continues to be large numbers of both very low skilled minimum wage jobs and high skilled high paying jobs. The jobs in the middle, however, have shrunk.

In addition, due to population trends (see last blog entry, “Deep Magic”) there is a growing percentage of a lower educated population and a declining percentage of a higher educated population. This fact has had the supply and demand result of putting a declining wage pressure on the middle and low skilled jobs and a rising wage pressure on the high skilled jobs. As a result, since 1979 there has been significant positive change in real income for highly educated persons and a significant decline in real income for those with limited education. See chart and excerpts below.

“Americans were keenly aware of this growing inequality even before the recession; in 2007, the top 1% of earners took home 23.5% of all income earned, the highest share since 1928. In recent decades the American economy has become increasingly polarised. Jobs have been plentiful for low and high-skilled workers, but employment opportunities for middle-skilled labourers have become much scarcer. Technology is the main culprit. Automation and outsourcing have claimed whole classes of jobs. The supply of skilled workers has failed to keep pace with demand, so the college wage premium (see chart) has increased.”


“Middle-skill jobs have declined as a share of occupations across Europe as well, and inequality has increased, though not as much as in America. How to maintain a stable middle class amid sweeping technological change is a problem the developed world is only beginning to appreciate. Governments will be sorely tempted to protect workers, but a flexible, well-educated labour force is likely to fare best in the transition.”

So, a new issue is upon us (as stated in the article): how to maintain a stable middle class amid sweeping technological changes (advancements and efficiencies). A well-educated workforce is the Economist‘s best answer.

So what is the “Christian Context” of this new western issue?

In his commencement speech to Harvard in 1978, Alexander Solzhenitsyn spoke these fascinating words: “However, in early democracies, as in American democracy at the time of its birth, all individual human rights were granted because man is God’s creature. Thus, freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility. Subsequently, however, all such limitations were discarded everywhere in the West; a total liberation occurred from the moral heritage of Christian centuries with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice… The West ended up by truly enforcing human rights, sometimes even excessively, but man’s sense of responsibility to God and society grew dimmer and dimmer. The defense of individual rights has reached such extremes as to make society as a whole defenseless against certain individuals. It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.”

This is fascinating. What began as “theology”… that because you were created by God, then you do have certain rights – no matter your race, religion, economic or educational status, etc. And so “individual’s rights” were created by God because He created us in His image… the same Maker is the maker of us all. However, the other side of this theological coin is that man not only has INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS, but also has been gifted by this same God with INDIVIDUAL OBLIGATIONS.

Now, in “modern history” we have thrown off God (Time Magazine April 8, 1966 “Is God Dead”) but have quite conveniently kept the notion of individual rights. Yet we have twisted these “rights” to mean that one may do whatever one wishes. Rarely in this culture that screams for the right to do and say and be anything does anyone still clamor for the right to do and serve and love and help others.


So the Christian context is that it is time, again, to defend not so much our human rights as our human obligations. And our obligations – as mandated by a good God – is to (among other things) look out for the poor and the needy. To seek injustices and make them fair and right. To do unto others as we would have others do unto us. To look out for our neighbor.

This is a great leadership point. We need people-of-courage who will think in terms of (Godly) obligation and not personal rights. Or, in different terms, we need people who will think of rights in terms of other’s rights, and not simply our own.

And there is no greater unmet “right” today than the right for every child in America to sit before a great teacher within a great school.

Who’s game?