March 9, 2020

Together in a World of Change

My father-in-law grew up on a tiny farm in Europe. Whenever an airplane flew overhead, he used to tell us, his entire family would race outdoors to watch. He chuckled when he told that story, smiling at his family’s quirky behaviour, but also shaking his head at how much had changed within the span of one lifetime. After all, who would give a passing airplane more than a glance these days? So much has changed within so little time.

Time was when people must have understood change differently than we do now. We see it as something virtually self-propelled, always moving straight forward and at an increasing rate. “Don’t be left behind,” we say, suggesting that keeping up with change is a race. By contrast, Shakespeare’s characters often described change as a circle — change doesn’t move forward; instead, like a wheel, change circles back on itself. As the French expression has it, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Change is the appearance; permanence is the reality.

Back in the day, my high school English students often bristled at this older view of time and change. They understood that this idea left less room for people to shape the future than our modern notions do. When Hamlet says, “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends/ Rough hew them how [w]e will,” my students heard fatalism. They wanted ownership of their destiny. They wanted to make something of themselves, not to submit to whatever happened, or failed to happen, as fortune’s wheel turned.

To give these students their due, often they were thinking of more than their own futures. They wanted an optimistic view of change in which people act to make things better, not only for themselves but also for others. After all, that is what we moderns mean when we talk about change as

progress. We agree that progress has tamped down diseases, fed expanding populations, lengthened life spans, and made us more comfortable. Beyond progress in our material lives, we want to believe that society progresses as well. “The arc of the moral universe is long,” we sometimes say, quoting Martin Luther King Jr., “but it bends toward justice.” My students, bless their hearts, wanted to be on the side that directed change and ‘made a difference,’ the side of progress.

Yet, most significant changes have complex effects, and not all of them are positive for every person. Big change leaves some of us behind, mourning whatever has been lost. Take the introduction of writing. Writing is such a powerful tool that it’s hard to see grounds to oppose it. Yet, according to Plato, Socrates did oppose it, arguing that writing would destroy memory. On this specific point, Socrates was right. When a culture adopts writing, the role of memory subsides — and not just memory in a narrow sense, but an entire way of life by which knowledge is carried forward across the generations through storytelling and teachings. Given a choice, we would choose to have writing. However, being granted our choice, certain things are lost.

As a society, we cannot avoid change, nor should we. My students’ attitude toward change as progress, as action to make things better in the world, is valid. On the other hand, the opposite attitude emphasizing what we lose due to change is valid too. Big change has complex outcomes. To understand and shape it wisely takes both points of view. We need to be together in the face of change.

By Lloyd Den Boer

Lloyd Den Boer is the Dean of Education at The King’s University in Edmonton. He also taught and administrated in elementary and secondary schools in both BC and Alberta.