Forces of Change

THE collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe. The stirring of democratic processes in Taiwan, Jordan, Peru, Brazil, and dozens of other countries. The erosion of apartheid in South Africa. These changes come immediately to mind at the threshold of the 1990s. Profound political shifts all, confirming the human drive toward freedom. All allow a liberation of individual abilities that has the potential to invigorate the societies involved.

The push toward representative government provided the crashing surf of change. But the swells and currents of history-in-the-making flow beneath the headlines, reaching the work place, the community, the household.

And their movement can be disturbing as well as exhilarating.

Look at the drive toward school reform in the United States - which, despite tough competition, remains the world's wealthiest country. It began six years ago and has yet to attain its goals. Will this effort to awaken and feed a love of learning ever reach the African-American and Hispanic youth in US cities? That's the hardest test, and the one that must be passed.

Can that same effort to improve education then be taken to the millions of children in developing countries whose minds and energy are the world's greatest untapped resource?

The commitment to take development, opportunity, and progress beyond one's own borders to a broader world should become a primary force for change in the coming decade. Interdependence is in danger of becoming an overworked term, but if it means anything, it's that greater cooperation among intertwined nations, businesses, and peoples is needed to expand and share resources.

To survive, that kind of idealism has to recognize the risks and paradoxes of change. The American economy has had a continuous expansion through the later 1980s; at the same time, poverty in the US hasn't receded at all, and debt and bankruptcy have climbed. Even as Mikhail Gorbachev permitted the Soviet Union's first contested elections, Deng Xiaoping stamped down China's democracy movement.

Peering into the '90s, mankind has to wonder whether change can be guided. Is change simply the outcome of chance, or can it be the product of intelligence?

Human beings have the capacity to think, to pray, to conceive a better path. The determination to use that capacity consistently - in families or the halls of government - can be a reliable force for constructive change.

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