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Rip Van Winkle, 2006

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Arthur Levine

Arthur Levine, President of Teachers College

This is my final Annual Report as President of Teachers College. The reader should take heart in knowing that I have not written a retrospective on my 12 years here. Instead, in keeping with the rest of this Report, which explores how TC is shaping education policy and practice in America, I will examine-'"albeit in a somewhat unorthodox manner-'"the nation's changing social landscape and its implications for public policy.

 

The Original Story

One hundred and ninety-six years ago, Washington Irving wrote "Rip Van Winkle," the tale of a man who falls asleep for 20 years, but is unaware when he wakes that he has slept for more than one night. (If you've heard or read me on this topic before, forgive me - it's a pet theme, but one that gets more relevant with each passing day). He finds that his wife and old friends are dead.  His children now have children of their own. He doesn't recognize the residents of his village and they don't know him. A revolutionary war has been fought and the colonies have become a nation. The painting of King George in the tavern has been replaced with one of George Washington. Faced with overwhelming change and nearly mad, Rip screams, "Everything's changed - and I'm changed - and I can't tell what's my name or who I am!"

Let's imagine a latter-day Rip who walked out of his home to pick up some groceries in 1980 and returns not knowing a quarter-century has passed. 

 

Rip Van Winkle, 2006

It's June 6th, 2006. Rip Van Winkle walks up his porch stairs, picking up the newspaper and tucking it under his arm. He fishes out his keys and unlocks the front door. He calls out to his wife, Samantha. There is no answer, which isn't surprising; Samantha was dressing for work when Rip left. His son and daughter were at school.

Rip falls into a big armchair in the living room. He was at work until nearly 11 p.m. last night, so he's taking it easy this morning. He'll get to the office in time for a lunch meeting. Enjoying the rare unscheduled time, Rip looks idly around the room. He wonders why he hasn't noticed how worn the furniture has become or how faded the wallpaper. More alert now, Rip does a double take; the record player and its stand are gone. The records, too.

It doesn't look as though there's been a burglary. Maybe Samantha or the kids moved things. Irritated, Rip walks over to the cabinet and opens the doors. He blinks. The old TV has been replaced by something that looks like a large picture frame with a big flat screen in the center. There are other appliance- DVD and CD players, VCR, TiVo unit - he's never seen before and dozens of silver discs in slim plastic folders, some with labels that are familiar ("Casablanca," "The Best of the Beatles," "Mozart's Requiem"), but most with titles he has never heard of.

In front of the flat screen in the picture frame is a remote control. Rip picks it up, sees an "on" button and, being male, presses it, though he has no idea what it does. At the bottom of the flat screen it says, "Weather Channel." Rip puts down the remote and flips through the channels manually. An anchorman appears on "CNN" to talk about the election, and Rip changes the station to avoid the obligatory clips of Carter attacking Kennedy, Bush criticizing Reagan. Faster and faster, he moves through the channels. There are dozens - no, hundreds: "Food Channel," "Court TV," "ESPN," "MTV," "Sci Fi Channel," "Black Entertainment Network," "Travel Channel," "History Channel"-'

At the sight of a scantily-clad young woman, Rip stops flipping. This channel is called the "Fox" network, and the twenty-something blonde is talking about being voted off an island, or a TV show, or maybe both. She's chatting casually about getting drunk, having sex and not using birth control. She calls people "fags" and "bitches." Rip, a product of the '60s, is actually blushing. The raciest show on TV when he left for the store was "Dallas."

He and Samantha never talk this frankly about sex. In fact, he's rarely heard language this filthy in locker rooms.

What's this doing on television?" he mutters.

Increasingly bewildered, he walks into the study to call his wife at work. Eyes darting around as he waits for her to pick up, he realizes his typewriter is gone. In its place - though he cannot name them - are a monitor, keyboard, computer, mouse, mouse pad, printer/copier and fax machine.

Samantha's voice comes on the line and Rip starts yelling. "Everything has gone crazy." He stops, realizing he is shouting at a recording. "Sorry I'm not in. I am on vacation and will return to the office on June 8th."

He hangs up, shaking with anger. "It's a joke," he says aloud, trying to calm himself. "It has to be a joke."

He calls his friend, Steve, and gets another recorded message. "If this is an emergency and you need to reach me,"-Rip grabs a pen off the desk and poises to write on the blotter- "please send me an email at stevew178@yahoo.com. I check messages frequently. Or try my cell, 917 553..." Rip hurls his pen at the wall and slams down the phone.

Seeking consolation from the refrigerator - a more recognizable appliance - Rip finds shelves filled with unfamiliar products: salsa, South African wine, goat cheese, turkey bacon, arrugula, four kinds of mustard, designer water.

He runs out to the street, only to find that the local bank is gone, replaced by a slot in the wall that spits out money. People are walking along, talking to themselves; one well-dressed man, holding what appears to be cigarette lighter to his ear, says, "I have an appointment with Bishop in 25 minutes. Google him, will you, and call me back. Oh, and send me a picture of him, too."

Rip stares around. There are girls in blouses that don't cover their navels. Women - and men - with earrings through their noses and belly buttons. Black people, Asian people - he has never seen so many of either on this street before, nor heard so many people speaking foreign languages.

He begins to walk. On every block, there seems to be a store called either Starbucks or the Gap. The other store names - Old Navy, Verizon, T-Mobile, Urban Outfitters, Internet Caf, ATM Inside - are equally unfamiliar.

He stops at a newsstand. The headlines leap out: "Dow falls to 9,800" (seven times what it was when he left for the store). "U.S. Troops to Stay in Iraq." And most incomprehensible of all: "World Champion Red Sox Lead AL." Even before his eyes come to rest on the printed date - June 6, 2006 - he begins to scream, but no sound comes out of his mouth. He still doesn't know about September 11th; Al Qaeda; Osama Bin Laden; the invasion of Afghanistan; the end of apartheid in South Africa; AIDS; global warming; the breakup of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall; stem cell research; the fight to legalize gay marriage; red and blue states; the rise of the Christian right; the nation's shift from an industrial to an information economy; the loss of U.S. jobs to other nations; homelessness; the demise of business icons such as Eastern Airlines and Pan Am; Krispy Kreme Doughnuts. Not to mention the Internet, spam, chat rooms, eBay, Amazon, viruses, software, hardware, instant messaging, Fandango, crashes, hard drives, CD-ROMs, Web sites, URLs, search engines, blogs, Mapquest, dot coms, Microsoft, home pages, Blackberries, online shopping, online banking, online stock trading, online bill paying, online dating, online research and online ordering Chinese food.

Finally, the agonized cry: "Everything's changed - and I'm changed - and I can't tell what's my name or who I am!"

 

Implications

All right, you get the point: It's a new world. In fact, as our country transitions from a national industrial to a global information economy, we are living through changes far greater and more rapid than any previous generation in human history. Everything is in flux - our sense of safety, the meaning of family, the jobs available to us, our country's relationships with the rest of the world, and the ever-more complex web of organizations surrounding us in every field, from medicine and banking to entertainment and schooling. We can alter biology in ways never before imagined and we possess technologies with the potential to bring benefit or disaster to every corner of the globe.

As we live through these profoundly disorienting changes, the metaphor of "Rip Van Winkle"- originally intended to capture the upheaval that wracked the nation during the industrial revolution - has never been more apt. The rules and customs by which people lead their daily lives are being bent and abridged without warning. We see familiar parts of the world dying and only half-glimpse the new world, as yet inchoate and indeterminate, coming into being.

There are two very rational - and very different responses to these conditions. One is to try to stop the changes and reclaim the world being lost. The other is to embrace change and use it to make the new world the best that it can be.

These opposing positions divide the soul of the nation. America is torn by competing desires to regain a past both real and nostalgically recalled and to invent a future unknown and uncharted. The struggle dominates American politics, separating red states from blue. In the 2004 presidential election, the salient issues for those who voted for President Bush were moral values (79 percent) and terrorism (86 percent). The underlying theme for these voters was the need to preserve a world they cherished and saw crumbling. They wanted to be safe in a nation that could no longer think of itself as "Fortress America." They wanted to protect the traditional institution of marriage. They wanted to uphold religious beliefs in an age of stem cell research and legalized abortions.

In contrast, the major issues for Kerry voters were the economy (80 percent) and the decision to go to war in Iraq (87 percent). These voters saw a crumbling world and wanted to reshape it. Faced with unemployment and international job outsourcing, they wanted economic development and education. Troubled by tax cuts and mounting deficits, they wanted equity and social investment. Opposing war in Iraq, they wanted a less go-it-alone approach to foreign policy and a more global, long-term vision for the country.

Bush voters prevailed because the vision of what we hope to reclaim is far clearer and more powerful than what we wish to invent. There are effective leaders, loud voices and well-articulated policies for reclamation. This is the conservative agenda, and since Barry Goldwater's defeat for the presidency in 1964, it has been promoted by a web of foundations, think tanks, lobbyists, litigators, media, philanthropists and initiatives to recruit, train and advise candidates for political offices, from the local school board to the White House.

In contrast, a progressive agenda, offering a vision of the new world ahead and how the U.S. can thrive in it, is largely absent. At best, it consists of soggy rhetoric. Progressives have neither proposed policies nor created a web of supporting institutions that can counter those of the conservative camp.

This is understandable - it's harder to envision the new than it is to idealize the old - but highly unfortunate, on two counts.

First, Americans deserve to be able to choose from competing visions of tomorrow - and to draw upon both. Ultimately, I suspect we will want to preserve the historic values we treasure; feel protected; ease the pain and fear of a transition to a new era; help shape the future ahead; and, of course, determine how, individually and collectively, Americans and the citizens of the world can benefit most from that future.

Second, history suggests that even the most clear-eyed and perceptive opponents of change will be unable to resist the tide of profound shifts we are experiencing. Consider the Luddites. The term "Luddite" is used today to characterize people who stubbornly resist technology. Actually, the Luddites were craftsmen and artisans who understood that the transition of Britain from an agrarian to an industrial society would dramatically change life for them and their country. They were realists, not reactionary bumpkins. In order to preserve a world they knew and cherished, the Luddites carried out a war against the newly developing factories. In the end, they lost because the forces of change were simply too powerful; factories spread too quickly and paid wages far higher than artisans customarily made. I am convinced that, like the Luddites, we cannot recapture the past so many of us fondly remember.

 

An Agenda

So what do we want the future to look like? And what is possible?

To answer those questions, we must first begin replacing today's unidirectional discussion of the future with one that looks both backward and forward. Unless we do this, it won't be possible to make intelligent choices. We will continue to create bogeymen, waging a debate that's based on fear and that widens our divisions even further.

A more enlightened discussion will require excellent research that supports well-articulated policy choices and a variety of visions of the future. At the moment, this is not possible. Only the reclamation position is well developed. It is essential that a comparable infrastructure-'"funders, think tanks, advocates and the rest - be created for the progressive position. To do that, the nation's foundations must fund non-partisan research on future choices in areas such as health care, education, the economy, defense and globalization. To increase the value of research, foundations must establish media outlets to publicize the findings to the public and policymakers. Philanthropists must augment these efforts by supporting litigation, advocacy and candidate recruitment, just as their counterparts have done in advancing the reclamation agenda.

Competing visions and infrastructures would fuel a national conversation. That conversation would generate ideas, and those ideas would be disseminated, publicized, advocated and litigated. They would be promoted by candidates for public office.

In all of this, the world of education has a critically important part to play. Education today is the engine that drives our national economy and our individual futures. Yet too often schools and colleges lag far behind our society in their mix of students; in the skills and knowledge they offer to support productive, engaged lives; the depth and breadth of their curricula; the diversity and skills of their faculty and the nature of their instructional techniques; how they are funded and how those resources are used; and the research questions they are asking.

It is essential for colleges and schools to continuously assess their roles. They must regularly ask whether they have maintained their fit with both their historic values and the realities of contemporary society. And in times of profound change, they must make both additions and changes to their curriculums. Colleges might consider educating students in the three Cs-'"critical thinking, continuous learning and creativity. Graduates need to be able to ask hard questions and understand the difference between rhetoric and reality. They must continue to update their skills as the half-life of knowledge grows ever shorter. They need the capacity to be inventive as old answers grow tired and less useful.

General education must be redesigned to look both forward and backward. The curriculum might focus on the commonalties all people share in a global information society. Majors, too, could be enriched to focus on methods of inquiry, which have greater longevity than many bodies of knowledge. They could be expanded to make the study of values more central, to use methods of instruction geared to the students being taught and to include opportunities for application via fieldwork, internships and senior projects.

As new technologies come into play, institutions must make critical decisions about whether they wish to be brick, click or brick and click. The answer must derive both from the historic mission of each institution and from newly emerging instructional possibilities.

Schools have similar needs. Their world has been transformed by the nation's transition from an industrial to an information economy. In the former, the emphasis is on assuring common educational processes. Students progress through 12 grades, attending classes 180 days per year in five major subjects for periods that were specified by the Carnegie Foundation early in the 20th century. In the latter, the focus is on achieving common outcomes and on learning over teaching. Student achievement alone becomes the mark of school success. Outcomes, assessment and accountability are the currency of education.

Today's schools are caught between both worlds. Their rhetoric of standards, testing and responsibility are staples of the new information economy. Their practices, which continue to emphasize teaching and maintenance of common processes, reflect the tenets of the industrial era. There is, in short, a disconnect between means and ends.

In the current age, it is not surprising that schools and colleges are disoriented and out of kilter. We all are. However, our educational institutions do not have the luxury of maintaining their current situation. The nation is intolerant of institutions labeled out of step with the times. Public confidence declines; funding is reduced; regulation increases; and demands for accountability grow.

 

Conclusion

Our nation is at a crossroads between yesterday and tomorrow. We can neither preserve the past nor know the future. The task before us is to create a future that adapts the values we hold most dear to a dramatically changing world. Let us hope the result is what Henry Adams envisioned as his own society moved rapidly into industrialization:

Perhaps, then, for the first time since man began his education among the carnivores, they would find a world that sensitive and timid natures could regard without a shudder.

 

Arthur E. Levine, President

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