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Is the United States a melting pot or a salad bowl? That question, says Hanna Gray, is a priority item on the nation's agenda for the 21st century. If it's a melting pot - as was widely assumed when, at age 3, the future president of the University of Chicago immigrated with her parents from Nazi Germany - then it can weather the major population changes she sees ahead. Despite profound shifts in the ratios of whites, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians, she says, the result will be a blending of different elements - an ``assimilation of and contribution to something that is distinctively American.''

But what if America instead becomes a salad bowl, in which dozens of ethnic ingredients remain separate and unblended? Instead of producing ``a nation made up of many nationalities,'' she says, the result would be a collection of individual groups with little to hold them together.

Of one thing she is sure: There will be ``a massive change'' in the racial and ethnic mix of the nation. What concerns her is ``whether this country is really prepared to confront both that change and its implications.''

What has bound the nation together in the past, Mrs. Gray says, is the ``expectation that there is a common set of norms - however remote, however difficult to interpret - that frames our society.'' Those norms, she says, include ``a commitment to a system of law and constitutional government that people feel really speaks to all of them in a fundamentally similar way.''

But ``if people don't have that confidence in the systems of law and governance because they don't experience its benefits,'' she says, the common bond could disappear.

``I think that by the middle of the next century,'' she says, ``we most surely need to have moved much further on our current agenda [of race- and population-related issues].''

How can the nation move forward on these issues? Her answer - not surprising from a scholar who entered college at age 15 and has been in the academic world ever since - is through education, especially at the university level.

What kind of higher education will the 21st century require? Even now, she says, there is ``a rather useful debate going on'' over that question. On one hand are those who see the university as a source for technical and professional training. On the other are those who, like Gray, want to place more emphasis on the traditional liberal arts programs.

``It's just astonishing, you know, the number of undergraduates in many of our very large universities across the country who major in business as undergraduates,'' she says. ``Basic science and the basic humanities and social sciences have lost out in many of those institutions.''

But she already detects a concern among business leaders and professionals about the loss of those basics - and for ``the value system within which all this technological expertise is located.'' How things relate HER recipe for 21st-century education, in fact, leans heavily on developing that ``value system.''

Universities, she says, need to ``inculcate the virtues of critical judgment and of understanding the complexities of things - seeing different sides of questions, and above all understanding how things relate to one another.''

What matters to Gray is not so much the information taught as the wisdom that grows out of it. ``The explosion of knowledge,'' she observes, ``has surely and forever altered what might be thought of as the terrain of knowledge that you can say with certainty everybody might share together.''

So ``what we've got to give undergraduates,'' she explains, ``is a central appreciation for the main activities of the human mind and of human culture over time, [as well as] a central appreciation for the main modes of intellectual activity that operate at the present time.'' High on her list of goals, too, is to provide students with ``a central capacity to sort out [the] information by which they're going to be overwhelmed.''

But hand in hand with these goals comes an ethical outlook - which, for Gray, has two facets. The first, which she describes as ``the principal ethics that a university should care for and teach,'' is what she calls ``intellectual integrity.''

``Intellectual integrity does not tell you what system you should follow,'' she explains. ``It doesn't tell you which of several values needs to be yours. But it does say that there are wrong answers and that there are cheap answers.''

The importance of turning away from ``cheap answers'' was a point emphasized by her father, the noted European historian Hajo Holborn. She says he felt that ``the most terrible thing about the Nazis and what they did to German culture was that they sold people cheap and simple versions of life and history.''

``Intellectual integrity teaches you that there are wrong answers,'' she says simply, adding that ``there is an important relationship between personal and intellectual integrity.''

As the second facet of the ethical outlook, Gray stresses the need for a proper understanding of what she calls ``the use of evidence.'' Some evidence, she says, has ``a kind of moral claim - not just a sort of scientific claim, but a moral claim - to your attention.'' Students need to be taught that ``you cannot evade evidence that may go in a direction different from your bias or ideology,'' she says.

The universities of the future, then, will be hard pressed to maintain the balance between training and education, technology and the humanities, and information and wisdom. What kind of system will best serve the 21st century's needs?

If one word can summarize Gray's convictions on this point, it is ``pluralism'' - which for her means a thriving mix of private and public institutions. Leaning forward in the chair behind her presidential desk, her features animated by the discussion, she notes with a smile that ``this is a subject that I'm passionate about.''

It is a passion driven by long years of experience in private education - much of it spent worrying about the steeply rising costs of learning and the implied threat from taxpayer-supported institutions with lower tuition.

``We've seen a shift from private universities to public universities,'' she notes, ``and we see fewer private universities.'' That's not necessarily bad, she says, except that it suggests that the nation lacks ``a national sense of purpose and value about a pluralistic university system.''

``Why is it, then, that all universities shouldn't be public?'' she asks. Answering her own question, she notes that in other countries ``systems of higher education that are monolithic and that are state-run ultimately become politicized - ultimately become instruments rather than critics of and contributors to the society.'' To maintain pluralism THE result, she says, is that they ``ultimately can descend to mediocrity, ultimately lack the competitive edge that makes it possible for different ways, different approaches, creative ideas, the taking of risks, to happen.''

Given the economic pressures on education, she wonders whether the current pluralism in American education - which she considers to be ``the best system of higher education in the world'' - can be maintained in the 21st century.

Some other educators, sharing her concern, have called for stronger national policies toward education. On that point, Gray has mixed feelings. Americans have ``always been very suspicious of national cultural ministries and national educational ministries.'' On the other hand, the public has a ``clear recognition of the disparities that exist and of the inequalities of opportunity'' that characterize the present situation.

She takes a dim view, she says, of some of the ``pronouncements'' of US Education Secretary William J. Bennett - which, despite his avowed support for pluralism, tend to produce ``a strange and paradoxical centralization of values.''

But she feels strongly about what she calls ``a national policy of access to higher education.''

That means, she says, ``a commitment to making it possible for people, regardless of their backgrounds, means, genders, race, to aspire to the level of education that they're suited for'' - and a commitment to providing the necessary loans and grants for that access.

She also sees the need for broader awareness of ``the significance of research and what it means to a society,'' as well as ``a national recognition that the future is ultimately grounded in the capacity to confront change and to adapt.''

So far, Gray has been speaking about the national agenda. What about the world agenda?

``It seems to me that [there] are really three major questions before the world,'' she says, ticking them off without further explanation. The first, she says, is ``the nuclear question and the question as to how containable the threat of nuclear devastation is.''

The second concerns ``the relationship between the less developed countries and the developed world,'' she says, with the issue centering on ``whether it is possible to sustain both a world economy and the hopes for democratic and humanitarian governments ... in the less-developed countries.''

Her third point takes the form of a question. Is it necessary, she asks, for the ``more developed countries which at the same time are full of injustice - for example, South Africa - to go through the destructive, violent kind of change that one sees almost inevitably as coming?'' Or can they evolve in ``more peaceful ways''?

Gray, a member of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations and the Council on Foreign Relations of New York, is concerned that, in global matters, the US is playing a shrunken role.

Compared with the post-World War II period, she says, ``I think we have a less international view.'' As the nation becomes ``less prosperous,'' it also becomes ``more insular.'' Rather than ``seeing itself more as part of the world, [the US] tends to withdraw and to become more inward - and that's a weakening in and of itself.''

What she sees as an ebbing of national prosperity brings her, finally, to two other points on the US agenda involving what she calls a ``shift in expectations about the future.''

The first has to do with economics on a personal level. ``The assumption of continuing growth, the assumption of the opportunities for social mobility, are surely being somewhat questioned,'' she says. ``And it seems to me that the United States is again on the verge of worrying whether it really is the world power - and also worrying whether [its former prosperity] will ever come back.''

``That issue about exaggerated expectations - and an extreme reaction if they're not met - is one that I think is not as yet well dealt with in our society,'' she says. She sees a need for coming generations to temper their economic expectations and ``become realistic.'' Second shift in expectations THE second shift in expectations concerns the women's movement. ``Sometimes,'' she says, ``the rhetoric of the women's movement suggests that absolutely everything needs to be possible.'' It leads women, she says, to ask why ``this one major biological difference [should] stand in the way'' and to assume that ``society is meant to be able to deal with it.''

``Well, there are issues that society can mitigate, issues that it can build institutions around and help,'' she says. ``But in the end it cannot make for people some of the choices that are theirs to make.''

The ``choices,'' she says, are difficult ones - concerning not only whether to have children but what kinds of careers to pursue.

``I worry that some of the younger women, who have opportunities undreamt of at an earlier time, are going to have extreme reactions when they discover that [living is] really a little more difficult [than they thought].''

The result will be an upsurge in the ``belief that society ought to create the institutions that [will] make life less painful for all of us.''

But the kind of issues facing women in the 21st century, she says, ``cannot be entirely solved for them by society.''

Next: Carlos Fuentes, author, Nov. 28.

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