“When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people…”
American Declaration of Independence
“You see things; and you say ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say ‘Why not?’
George Bernard Shaw, and later, Robert Kennedy
My musings today are just another reminder of two inexorable conditions that frame our lives and work, whether we like them or not.
The rate of change in the world today is faster than ever before.
Some change is very, very hard. On this scale, changing education is merely uncomfortable.
This week in the central square in Kiev, thousands of people armored with only motorcycle helmets, armed with gasoline bombs and paving stones, and ringed with burning tires, shouted the human condition and prepared to die. Some were there to fuel dark anarchistic agendas of violence. Most were there to demand fundamental rights that are still available to well less than half the people in the world: that the people shall choose their leaders, and that those leaders shall be held by law to the same standards as the people. Many died this week; many more may die. Their path is truly hard.
In a time just barely longer than the lives of some of the students we teach, the events in Kiev would have been impossible in more than half the world. Before about 1985, such an uprising anywhere in the Sino/Soviet Communist bloc, in most of the Middle East and much of Africa, in the military dictatorships of Central and South America, would have been put down with brutal force, the army crushing the barricades at night, killing those who stood, sending the survivors to torture and prison, many to disappear forever.
Brutal, autocratic regimes collapse for many reasons. What happened to accelerate the collapse or major reorientation of so many in such a short span of time, starting in the mid-1980’s? I have believed for decades that the tipping point was simply this: connectivity. Prior to that time, brutal suppression of dissent occurred in the anonymity of dark nights and media control. A few sacrificed their lives and freedom, but those brushfires of sacrifice, and the reasons for them, could not spread.
Prior to my life as an educator I spent a great deal of time in the former USSR and in the spin-off republics before and after that revolution. In Moscow in 1989 it was impossible to make a call outside the country without the approval of the government; virtually no one had access to the internet; local telephone calls were recorded; even copy machines and the supply of paper itself were highly controlled.
As the Berlin Wall fell and the brave minority took their stand in Moscow, the dictators forgot that they did not have a kill switch on international fax lines like they did on international phone exchanges. Hackers got to those fax lines and began using them to communicate both inside and outside of the Iron Curtain. I know; I talked to a colleague in Moscow the day the tanks fired on the Russian White House. For the first time in history, a repressive government could not control the spread of real-time, on-the-ground reporting of events. When the army refused to fire on their fellow countrymen in Moscow in 1991, it was with the sure knowledge that their actions would be reported around the world, and they would be either supported or condemned accordingly.
I am not an absolutist. Are those who gather in squares from Cairo to Kiev in the right and those in power always in the wrong? That is too simple. Do we easily forget the day in August 1932 when our own President Hoover ordered General Douglas MacArthur to clear the capital of World War I veterans and their families? Do we forget that our own cavalry and tanks, commanded by George Patton, charged against peaceful men, women, and children? Have we forgiven ourselves for Kent State or the streets of Chicago in the summer of 1968? Do we really hope that the Ukrainian democratic dream is modeled on ours today, where leaders focus on narrow self-interest, elected in contests fueled by massive financial donations and irresponsible propaganda? Has the model of democracy imagined by its modern founders in the late 18th Century survived a reconstruction of racial and gender equality only to founder upon the rocks of unprecedented wealth inequality? Given centuries of universally repressive social and political inequality in places like Russia, Ukraine, or China, can we not forgive a bit of oligarchical dictatorship on their evolutionary paths? Is not a Putin better for Russia than a Stalin or a Yeltsin?
I don’t know the answers to these complex questions of geo-politics, economics, and social restructuring. I do know that change is inevitable and connectivity between people, organizations, and knowledge occurs now at a rate and intensity that was unimaginable just 25 years ago. Those who try to re-cork the bottle will fail; those who embrace this accelerating neural network, be they governments or schools, will prosper.
So when we gather in our classrooms, boardrooms, and conference centers to contemplate how to change and improve education, let’s remember that for us change should be a welcome discomfort; for others it is a night behind the lines of fire.