Change Is Growth

Most of the problems facing human society today can be said to have been brought about by the “Change Revolution.”

And one of the best and most lucid examples of this revolution is given in the excellent book “Teaching as a Subversive Activity” by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner (Delacorte Press, 16th Printing, 1973).

In order to illustrate what this change revolution means, the authors use the metaphor of a clockface. Imagine a clockface with 60 minutes on it. Let the clock stand for the time men have had access to writing systems. Our clock would thus represent something like 3,000 years, and each minute on our clock 50 years.

On this scale, there were no significant media changes until about nine minutes ago. At that time, the printing press came into use Western culture. About three minutes ago, the telegraph, photograph, and locomotive arrived. Two minutes ago, the telephone, rotary press, motion pictures, automobile, airplane, and radio. One minute ago, the talking picture. Television has appeared in the last ten seconds, the computer in the last five, and communications satellites in the last second. The laser beam — perhaps the most potent medium of communications of all — appeared only a fraction of a second ago.

It would be possible to place almost any area of life on our clockface and get roughly the same measurements.

For example, in medicine, you would have almost no significant changes until about one minute ago. In fact, until one minute ago, as Jerome Frank has said, almost the whole history of medicine is the history of the placebo effect. About a minute ago, antibiotics arrived. Ten seconds ago, open-heart surgery. In fact, within the past ten seconds, there probably have been more changes in medicine than in represented by all the rest of the time on our clock. This is what some people call “knowledge explosion.” It is happening in every field of knowledge susceptible to scientific inquiry.

The standard reply to any comment about change (for example, from many educators) is that change isn’t new and that it is easy to exaggerate it’s meaning.

To such replies, Norbert Wiener has a useful answer: The difference between a fatal and a therapeutic dose of strychnine is “only a matter of degree.” In other words, change isn’t new. What is new is the degree of change. As our clockface metaphor was intended to suggest, about three minutes ago there developed a qualitative difference in the character of change. Change changed.

This is really quite a new problem. For example, up until the last generation, it was impossible to be born, grow up, and spend a life without moving more than 50 miles from home without ever confronting serious questions about one’s basic values, beliefs, and patterns of behavior. Indeed, without ever confronting serious challenges to anything one knew. Stability and consequent predictability within “natural cycles” was the characteristic mode.

But now, in just the last minute, we’ve reached the stage where change occurs so rapidly that each of us in the course of our lives has to continuously work out a set of values, beliefs, and patterns of behavior that are viable, or seem viable, to each of us personally.

And just when we have identified a workable system, it turns out to be irrelevant because so much has changed while we were doing it.

If you are at all interested in such things as growth, renewal, and education — your own as well as your children’s — I recommend you read the book “Teaching as a Subversive Activity.” Don’t let the title fool you.

1 Comment

  1. Michael Gutmaker on May 18, 2019 at 1:09 pm

    I could only imagine what Earl might say if he were alive today. Just to see the modern truth of this, and how vastly and quickly the internet has changed the world in just the last few microseconds. I heard recently that 5-year plans aren’t good enough anymore… the world is changing too fast!

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