Moving from Nostalgia to Possibility

“Can you imagine a world without institution x?” This question often pulls at the heartstrings of those committed to a particular status quo. It’s is a question intended to conjure up nostalgia and/or fear…to rally a base of people who want to see a given school or organization go on doing whatever it’s doing even if what it is doing doesn’t need to be done anymore. The question, in other words, is not an authentic question…it’s rhetorical and the assumed answer is “no.”

Having spent time in higher education, I have a great deal of respect for and a commitment to the formation of students that has traditionally occurred (at least for the past century) in residential institutions. That said, I’m not committed to the model in which that formation occurs. I don’t have a particular alternative nailed down (though I certainly have ideas), but when I ask the question “Can you imagine a world without institution x?” it is not rhetorical, but an invitation to consider new possibilities. We aren’t stuck.

Can I imagine a world without higher education? Of course. That is most of human history. Can I imagine a world without learning? Can I imagine a world in which experienced, wise men and women refuse to come alongside and mentor the next generation? No. These latter two activities (learning and mentoring) seem to me essential…they are what I actually care about. Do I care how they happen? Not really. I assume that every model will have its own issues. No matter what sort of system emerges checks and balances will be required.

The point I’m trying to make is that we are not doing ourselves any favors when we look at an institution or model that is declining in effectiveness and decide that we have to save it…that somehow the world will end (or be worse off) without a specific institution or a specific way of doing things. Institutional death may well be lamentable, but, in my opinion, it is neither preventable nor catastrophic. It seems to me a natural outworking of history…people and the organizations they build tend to end eventually.

Rather than allowing our nostalgia to motivate us toward maintaining the status quo, we need to tap into the roots of that nostalgia and envision new possibilities that could be realized if old ways of doing things ended. Nostalgia doesn’t have to be a bad thing as long as we interrogate it and really understand what it is that we care about…what we really want to see continue. Once we understand what we really care about, we may find that we no longer want to be tied down by institutional anchors.

So, the next time someone asks you to put your time, talents, and finances toward the preservation of a particular, historic organization, ask yourself whether you really care if the institution blinks out of existence. Is it still the most effective way to accomplish a particular goal? Or, has the time come to dedicate your time, talents and treasure to a new enterprise? Remember…nostalgia doesn’t have to keep you in the past…it can also guide you as you seek out new possibilities.