History, Poetry, Hope, & Fear

StoneHenge.jpgAt 35,000 feet, with a steaming Starbucks and a purring iPod I read my Grandfather’s memoirs last Wednesday. I’d already put in several hours of work when I decided to crack the sheaf of Xeroxed reflections written three years before he passed in 1964.

Ninety eight years ago in the summer of 1911 he was young Officer in Training in the English Army. Then poetry happened.

“I was on a march across Salisbury Plain in full regalia because we were going to sleep out that night. It turned out to be the hottest day on record and out of 600 more than 200 collapsed on the way. We were not a happy company, but we managed to bathe in the river when we reached out destination and that revived us. At night we lay down on the ground near the old ruins of Stone Henge, the oldest and most astonishing group of temple stones in England…The evenings are very short in England in summer and I think it was shortly after 4 in the morning when I was stamping around trying to get some circulation in my cold feet that I noticed the sun starting to rise over the old temple stones. At the same moment there was a racket and over the stones came one of the earliest aeroplanes in the world, the first I had seen and about 1,000 feet up. I was looking at a combination of the oldest and newest in the world. While I stood transfixed the motor of the plane conked out and the plane wobbled all over the place, but finally landed right side up. We rushed over and there was the pilot strapped in but shaking so hard he couldn’t do a thing. We unstrapped him and laid him on the ground to carry on his shaking because he had had a close brush with death.”

It was indeed one of the first. The British formed their first Airforce units in April 1911- the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers. They had a total 57 pilots – I’m assuming 56 after this incident.

Harry Wilson emigrated to Toronto in 1913 and as a result managed to avoid the generational genocide of 1914 and beyond. Almost all of his college friends perished in the war. The rest of the his story is woven through the 20th Century, moving to the US, pioneering research in Radio transmission, Mayor of his town during the Depression, Entrepreneur in his 50’s and 60’s.

It is easy to lose sight of how far we have come in so short a period of time. Ninety eight years from crash landings at dawn to email, coffee, and a book in the few short hours it takes to get from Austin to Seattle (with a stop for a sandwich in Denver).

Times are tough, and we have difficult choices to make, but the conditions of our existence have shifted so quickly in just two generations that it makes me optimistic for the day when this economic blip is over. In the long view we’ll be just fine.

Its the short term that scares me. The 20th century was the most violent in our short history. MIllions perished in a long running war of ideas and money as we sorted out the best way to organize and control an industrialized society. In the ocean of dislocation that marked this era hateful ideologies took root and were tools of power for the greedy and delusional.

As we pass from industrial to information economy the dislocations will be no less jarring at an individual and national level. Witness the death of newspapers (ironically reported daily) which is both a social transition and a personal tragedy for those who made their living in the industry.

As our collective lives improve many individuals pay an extremely high price. Education in this context is not just about having the job skills to adapt, it also means having the social and networking skills to contribute to the well being of our friends, family, and the endless stream of strangers who touch our lives. This wisdom is both ancient and urgently modern.

If you publish instructional materials are you part of the solution?


2 responses to “History, Poetry, Hope, & Fear”

  1. I got your point but how many of people will agree on it. You are right in saying that the conditions of our existence have shifted so quickly in just two generations.

  2. Doug Stein says:

    The trickiest thing about being part of the solution when publishing instructional materials is that there are Balkanized sets of content standards which are disconnected from both job skills and survival skills. When you need to “surf to survive” (both rapid response to workplace change and rapid assimilation and integration of knowledge) it’s pretty unsettling that the instructional materials market has to work with buying cycles and content standards that have to remain frozen for 6 year periods.

    In the industrial age, hard assets (factories) were depreciated over 20 years – and employees often stayed in jobs that long or longer. Therefore 6 year cycles were quick enough.

    Now, the writeoff period for capital goods is often 3 years or less (durations that used to be associated only with R&D groups) – with most people holding jobs for 5 years or less.

    It seems we’re all in for perpetual R&D – both in our lives and jobs and learning. Nonetheless, social networks (in cyberspace *and* meatspace) require stability. How can we steer between stultifying stasis and crippling chaos and instead have renewable rhythm?

    Moreover, how can we bring along the increasingly marginalized segments of society? The world is too small to have royal wealth visible and cheek-by-jowl with grinding poverty. This is an unstable situation like a snow cornice on a mountinside after heavy snowfall. A little jostling can lead to a destructive avalanche.

    Education is a far better means of improving the common man’s lot than Robin Hood taxation and social policy.

    I too am hopeful in the long run, but fear for another period of dislocation and ideological strife in an age of WMDs and asymmetric warfare.

    Let’s take a good lesson from the tactics of the terrorists and strive to change one subject, one grade level, one standard, one school district, one child’s life for the better and use the grand engines of society to sift and communicate what works.