If everything changed all the time, we wouldn’t know how to behave. Organization is essential to our society making progress. Maybe that’s why we keep ending up in the very same kinds of situations that we’ve staged revolutions and decades of counter-force against. It sometimes makes me wonder whether our world is just on auto-pilot cycling through forced changes. How much of an impact do our maneuvers really have? As T.S. Eliot wrote, “Do I dare / Disturb the universe? In a minute there is time / For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.”
Yet T.S. Eliot’s contributions to thinking on change weren’t all grim resignations to everything returning to its natural course, despite the disrupting fluctuations we inflict. Eliot also wrote: “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”
How can we read this through a lens of understanding the paradox of change?
The example I almost always use is education. Having lost significant portions of their endowments and braced for even greater losses in the coming years, private universities, in the face of this immense disruption to carefully balanced finances, are being encouraged to take risks. Marketing consultants and politicians alike are telling them to engage in unprecedented innovation and exhibit creative and forward-thinking leadership. What is the goal of this direction? Is it to seek stability in the face of utter uncertainty? Or, is it to take the lowest point in recent economic history as an opportunity to instigate reforms that would have previously been unimaginably bold?
It’s unlikely that anything that happens now in direct response to the economic crisis, at least in terms of education, will have a profound impact on the way we understand and implement education as an institution in this country. If history holds true, this is one bump in the ongoing cycle of ups and downs, reforming previous reforms by returning to the reforms that came ever before them. But what if Eliot is telling us something—what if this time of economic concern is our exploration, this is our learning journey, and at the end of it, no matter whether our system looks the same or the battle we fought seems to have been in vain, we have gained a greater understanding of how we and our institutions work? Through creativity, innovation, and leadership, we can take meaningful steps towards a more in-depth, comprehensive understanding of the inner workings of our long-lasting institutions and the way we interact with them, and maybe one day, we will find the tiny pinhole in the cycle, and we will know, for the first time, what to do.