We kick off our first edition commenting on approaches taken by leaders of the blue chip schools Westminster and Princeton University during these difficult times.
Creating the Future As a professional strategist, one is often called upon to be a futurist. The business of looking into the crystal ball and planning backwards from there has had a lot of faces, but today it is more difficult than ever due to the vast complexity of the world that we already know. As an artist, one is sometimes called on to come up with a way of making sense of something that so far hasn't had a good way of making sense. This sets about another exploration of complexity, as the effort tends to be fundamentally about discovering what works with what, and how, and why. In an eye-catching coincidence, I opened up the Westminster Magazine Spring 2020 edition on the same day that I opened up the June 2020 issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly. Westminster had fast-tracked me into Princeton, and while I have since very long ago taken that for granted, here's what happened that put a fresh face on it. Westminster President Keith Evans introduced the Spring Magazine with a letter that had two "jump off the page" ideas in it. One was, paraphrasing not quoting, "What makes a Westminster education unique is our graduates' capacity and confidence to do more than... adapt to the future." Another was that research subjects, asked to report on their immediate thoughts, were pondering the future three times as often as they were considering the past. Jump to the Princeton Alumni Weekly, and President Christopher Eisgruber publishd a transcript of a statement he made immediately before Commencement exercises for the Class of 2020. Speaking of racism and COVID's dual impact, he said (again paraphrased), "You graduate in much harder times... Each and every one of you has lost something precious and irreplaceable...In far too many ways you have seen how fragile our world is. So much vanished so fast..." He ended the thought: "you animated this university with your creativity... your class has the chance to be the start of somethingtruly extraordinary..." Taken together, the two presidents drew an arc that this Abraham Lincoln quote captures perfectly: "the best way to predict the future is to create it." Thanks to the web and digital media, we are awash in predictions today of things that call for creativity but certainly do not guarantee anything. Whether it is the economy, the climate, the politics, the food supply, the diversity of the biomass, or the culture, it seems increasingly clear that few things of great importance can now be affected without also affecting something else in the list. The consciousness of the systemic nature of things does not invalidate a more conventional sense of the value in fighting for linear progress, but it makes relationships far more dominant as a success factor in creating the future that is probably needed. In an important way, this suggests that rebuilding the past is quite possibly a fundamentally bad idea. The enormity of the resource that has been a more highly educated population may not be mainly responsible for the dozens of types of structural stratifications that have been recently savaged by both human and Mother nature. But that same "exceptional" population allowed it to happen on their watch. It is one thing to have a high school, or a college, exhort its cohort to create the future. But these are 18 year olds, and 22 year olds, who have not yet come to institutional power. They have two profoundly steep mountains to climb. One is to acquire a usable knowledge of the real world they are issued. Another is the responsibility to decide what to keep and what to replace. For us who are well past college, what do we know about the future that we can offer as knowledge to them today? Are we not more ethically compelled to focus on their future than our own? If we do not take the responsibility to enable their creativity more than the longevity of our past, are we preventing them from using their best skill of all and denying them their future by insisting on our own?
Malcolm Ryder (West ‘72) Contributor