February 08, 2013

De Rerum Mutandorum

Patrick Marren

Things change faster and more completely than we think, which makes prediction a lot more difficult, and scenario planning more useful.

An example from recent reading: Harvard University. Emphases mine.

Exhibit A: 1820.

Jefferson conceived the work of the [University of Virginia] as a critical element of the kind of American world he had long worked to bring about. "This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind," he said. ..."For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it might lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it. ...If our legislature dos not heartily push our University we must send our children for education to Kentucky or Cambridge," Jefferson said in 1820, alluding to Transylvania College in Kentucky and to Harvard College. "The latter will return them to us fanatics and tories [i.e., pro-British monarchistic conservatives - PM]...."

From Thomas Jefferson, The Art of Power, Jon Meacham, 2012

Exhibit B: 1854.

For generation after generation, Adamses... had gone to Harvard College, and although none of them, as far as known, had ever done any good there, or thought himself the better for it, custom, social ties, convenience, and, above all, economy, kept each generation in the track. Any other education would have required a serious effort, but no one took Harvard College seriously. All went there because their friends went there, and the College was their ideal of social self-respect. ...Harvard College, as far as it educated at all, was a mild and liberal school, which sent young men into the world with all they needed to make respectable citizens, and something of what they wanted to make useful ones. Leaders of men it never tried to make. Its ideals were altogether different. The Unitarian clergy had given to the College a character of moderation, balance, judgment, restraint, what the French called mesure, excellent traits, which the College attained with singular success, so that its graduates could commonly be recognised by the stamp, but such a type of character rarely lent itself to autobiography. In effect, the school created a type but not a will. Four years of Harvard College, if successful, resulted in an autobiographical blank, a mind on which only a water-mark had been stamped. ...It taught little, and that little ill, but it left the mind open, free from bias, ignorant of facts, but docile. The graduate had few strong prejudices. He knew little, but his mind remained supple, ready to receive knowledge.

From Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams, 1918
Exhibit C: 1936.

When [Paul] Samuelson decided three years later that he would make a better economist than mathematician and won a scholarship to graduate school, he chose Harvard over [his undergraduate alma mater, the University of] Chicago. The presence of Edward Chamberlin, who had recently published the groundbreaking The Theory of Monopolistic Competition, was an attraction, but getting away from home and the fantasy of the "peaceful green village" were far bigger lures. Arriving in Cambridge in the third year of the Roosevelt recovery, Samuelson quickly discovered that Harvard's senior faculty, while politically to the left of Chicago's, was intellectually far more conservative.

Sylvia Nasar, Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius, 2011
Exhibit D: 1953.
When [Lawrence, Wisconsin, College's president, Nathan] Pusey became Harvard's president [in late 1953], [Senator Joseph] McCarthy called him "a rabid anti-anti-communist," adding, "Harvard's loss is Wisconsin's gain." In November 1953 the senator cited Harvard as "a smelly mess" in which students were "open to indoctrination by Communist professors."
John T. Bethell, Harvard Observed: An Illustrated History of the University in the Twentieth Century, 1998
Exhibit E: 1990.
Harvard Law, the nation's oldest, largest and most prestigious law school, found itself at the center of national attention when scandals erupted over hiring practices in the late '80s. By 1990 the Law School's faculty was still 92 percent male and 95 percent white - numbers which both students and some liberal faculty were working to change. ...Battles over teaching methodology and affirmative action developed between conservatives and liberals. The ripples from that debate spread throughout the community, threatening to destroy the school. ...Conservative faculty members stood by the traditional case study method and Socratic lecture format while liberal agitators...demanded greater freedom to implement what was known as Critical Learning Studies (CLS). Harvard's highest offices resisted a number of appointments which would have diversified campus ideology. ...To heighten the conflict, liberal students protesting discriminatory hiring practices were disciplined, sending waves of animosity through the community once more. ...Harvard's conservative establishment had no reason to relinquish their power to opposition groups.
1994, The Harvard Crimson, "The Law School's Battle of Politics," Thomas Madsen
So, if Harvard can swivel (at least in the eyes of some) from monarchist-Tory-fanatic, to inoffensive Unitarian blandness, to intellectually conservative bulwark, to "the Kremlin on the Charles," back to a conservative establishment resisting affirmative action...what other institutions might change around us over the next generation?
- Within twenty years, Fox News could be a middle-of-the-road member of the "mainstream media," tracing the same path as previous radically conservative media outlets such as the Chicago Tribune and Time Magazine.
- The Republican Party, formed as a pro-African-American, anti-establishment, liberal movement, could return more towards its roots in the next generation, as the United States moves toward "majority-minority" status and traditionally lower-economic-status minorities make more money and become more amenable to a small-government, low-tax message.
- The Democratic Party, originally formed as a small-government, states' rights, anti-urban alliance of Southerners, may find itself in crisis as its late-twentieth-century identity of support for expansive government, urban voting blocs, and benefits for seniors and the poor run into fiscal constraints.
- Economic and social unrest could push China into a renewed crackdown and re-energized totalitarianism - or make it the world's largest democracy. 
- Political infighting in the United States could become so much worse that multiple impeachments take place, political violence becomes common, and the United States loses its leadership role in the world - or a new, more solid consensus develops as the result of some new catastrophe or common threat, or simply because people get tired of fighting. 
- Distance learning completely transforms all of education, leading to a meritocratic revolution in which the socioeconomic advancement, stalled for so many around the turn of the 21st century, suddenly bursts wide open and paves the way for an unprecedented boom in economics and human development worldwide.
- And that boom in distance learning throws great institutions of learning such as Harvard into crisis, as their product becomes available to everyone in the world free - and they cannot capture its economic value in order to sustain their position at the top?
Not one of these possibilities might come to fruition; but we can safely say that changes of the magnitude they represent WILL take place over the next generation.