Is the soul of our educational system more attuned to innovation or tradition? What about your school or business? It is easy to say “both” or “in balance”, but I am not sure the balance point is where you need or want to be.
Over dinner at the JRPO spring academic meeting last week some of my tablemates got me talking about my years of business in the former Soviet Union during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. It was a tumultuous, historical, and memorable period of travel, negotiation, and the forging of friendships, as the communist era flamed out and the empire broke apart. Now, more than 20 years later, our best reports are that the big cities have begun to move inexorably towards a more economically and politically diverse future, but that much of the countryside, a vast reach of farms and mountains, tundra, oil fields, coal mines and forests, remain deeply entrenched in that most inwardly-looking Russian reflection that leads millions to think that a return to something Stalin-like is more than thinkable…it might even be enviable. The past, even one as dark and filled with gulags of desperation, can feel secure when the future is unknown and our daily bread is not guaranteed.
What a contrast to our brief visit last December to visit my daughter who spent the season playing professional volleyball in Poland. In ex-communist Czech Republic and Poland, the communist era is looked back on as an aberration, a pause, a mistake, and the people have moved on with their lives and their vision. The streets are filled with cars, shops are full of consumer goods, and while wages and aspirations are not what they are in New York or London, it is hard to find anyone who thinks that the best future lies in the rear view mirror. The people of Eastern Europe pulled themselves out of a century of war and economic deconstruction and are ready to give anyone a run for their money.
One of my table mates, Steve Hancock of Princeton Day School, listened to all of this and offered this pearl of a question: “Do you think our schools are going to be more like Russia or more like Poland?” I don’t know the answer, but it is a great metaphor to ponder and discuss. Will your school tend towards the security of a rich and deep heritage, a Motherland of tradition, a gathering inward of the tremendous resources that our schools have developed over time as a bulwark against the inevitable changes that are occurring in the world? Or will we look to those changes as opportunities to be nimble, resourceful, adaptive; respectful of your cultural traditions but not soul-bound to them? Can we really adapt to new environmental realities if we have one foot firmly planted in the security of the past in deference to the mantra of “balance”?
Steve is one of those guys who listens a lot, does not say much in a group, but when he does, he hits it on the head. Thanks, Steve!