Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Past, Change and Social Media

I discovered a copy of the 1956 president's address to the American Historical Association by Lynn Thorndike in a box of stuff from my old house today.  Thorndike was lamenting a proto-presentism in his talk, and when taken in the context of the rising Red Scare and soon ramping up of Cold into at least Lukewarm War in the 1960s, his points are worth considering in bulk.  Here's the key passage, and I found it interesting both when considering changes in how we communicate today and how we look at our past. "Innovators and reformers too often have had single-track minds which were taken possession of and overwhelmed by one dominating idea.  A solitary reason for making a change may appeal to them so powerfully that it alone is sufficient to stir them to action, goad them into agitation, and impel them into propaganda.  Of arguments to the contrary they take no account.  How the situation which they wish to alter came about, they do not inquire, or, if they do, assign it to an unwholesome origin and ascribe to evil motives.  Nor are they interested in the many reasons, past and present, which this state of affairs has continued for so long, and possibly should continue for still longer.  For them, the very fact that it has endured for so long a time is in the nature of presumptive evidence that it has outlived its usefulness and its long persistence they regard not as a sign of inherent merit but as so much the more a lag from the march of modern progress. They do not pause to reflect that ancient Egyptian civilization may have lasted so long because it was not continually being reformed . . .  The iconoclasts who smashed statues, shattered stained glass windows and whitewashed over religious paintings, thought only of ridding the church of idolatry, and recked not of the irreparable loss to art, archaeology and history." Ah yes, in other words, don't change it for change sake and consider the impact.  Thorndike goes into a long example of how there's a new problem in the world with juvenile delinquency and that the modern 20th century world essentially invented it through well meaning child labor law and other reforms.  "For the first time in history we are keeping in a state of tutelage persons who were physically, emotionally, and often intellectually adult."  Of his four illustrations of minors, the one regard Joan of Arc was best: "by the age of 19 [she] had defeated the finest military machine in Europe, crowned a King of France and herself suffered martyrdom. If today she were training as a teacher, she would be allowed out after 10 p.m. once a term, on written application and on promise to take another member of the college with her." Does it mean that everything old is justfied?  Hardly.  The title of his piece was a take on Alexander Pope, saying "Whatever was, Was right" and meaning more as a caution to say those old folks, they weren't stupid.  You can't judge their decisions by today's standards (ie, presentism), accept that for them what they did was valid and take a little time to understand why. Later, Thorndike makes it clear that change isn't always good. "Such innovations and reforms and changes, which were made from some one compelling reason, or from mere love of change, are of course likely to be undone for another compelling reason which has been overlooked before, or from the same mere love of change." It's in these old position papers that I find great nuggets of current inspiration.  We talked at length at CoSIDA about the way that social media impacts coaches, athletes and institutions.  Consider Thorndike talking about the printing press, and substitute the networked world of fans as you read: "Here was an innovation that was not merely a mechanical improvement but of stupendous mental and educational promise.  Instead of merely enabling man to move faster -- like the horse, the locomotive, the automobile and the airplane, it enable one to read faster, to think faster and it was for some time fondly believed, to publish faster." He goes on for a page to talk about just because the cost dropped didn't mean that people actually took the time to publish, that what they created was worth publishing or that what you ended up with was what you were really looking for.  Sound familiar? While I'm picking at the old essay to talk change, I have to close on the real theme -- the study of history -- in Thorndike's lecture. "The more we study the past, the more we find that it was right, not wrong as previously supposed on the basis of insufficient evidence and knowledge.  The more we know concerning any past period, the better our opinion of it becomes.  Charges of ignorance against it are usually a sign of our ignorance about it.  Charges of bigotry and superstition against it may be due to our own prejudice and narrow-mindedness." If you're interested in the entire article, Lynn Thorndike, Whatever Was, Was Right, American Historical Review, Vol 61, No. 2 (Jan 1956), p 265-283.

No comments: