Thursday, July 31, 2008

Last Day

The theme of 'nightfall', or the less daunting but also pessimistic 'fin de siècle', is an old but effective meme. It is human to think that after every Enlightenment comes an Age of Darkness, or that after every Golden Age comes a descent through Silver to Iron. This is what past history has shown us, and this is what we therefore continue to believe.

The sweep of human history tends to catch us up in these large chunks. We say, "In the Middle Ages," forgetting that this was not a period of decades, but a conflation of centuries, a round half-millennium's worth. We say, "In the Modern Era," seduced into behaving as if this means the last two decades or so. It is a reverse telescopic effect; we look back at the past and compress whole ages of civilisation into footnotes and endnotes. In the end, such practices lead us to only one obvious conclusion: "This, too, shall pass."

But that is not a very useful conclusion. Given a lengthy enough period of time and the assurance (if such exists) that time will continue to pass, everything passes. The more useful ideas involve thinking about what has happened, what just happened, and what is going to happen – and how these are connected. This conceptual focus is necessary when looking at a broad sweep of history; the useful (if not outright good) historians all do this, enabling us to appreciate to some extent how one movement leads to another without getting bogged down in too many personal details. The hinges of history might very well be greased by one man's inferiority complex, but the door that swings open or shut was crafted by an epoch of previous events.

Today, for example, marks the last stage of the end of an era at an educational institution whose progress I've tracked for a very short period of time. It has only been around for 122 years, which is about three times as long as the history of the state in which it resides, and a bit more than half the span of years that the United States of America has existed.

When you look at educational institutions, it is like looking at some sort of very system-specific scan of the human body. We tend to divide history and progress along the lines of what is easily seen as a specific concept. A look at school websites shows that school histories tend to follow one or more of the following: 1) changes to buildings, location, or physical size; 2) changes of leadership; 3) changes of curriculum; and (least likely) 4) changes of educational philosophy. It is very much like the way we do a general physical examination of a person, as laymen.

The first obvious feature is the integument, the skin or outward appearance. An unhealthy-looking skin can often mean internal disorders; a healthy and glowing skin can mean either good cosmetic treatment or genuine good health. The skin is the largest organ, and it is sometimes neglected. Sometimes we see only the large areas and the more prominent parts of it: face, hands, deliberately-exposed areas; hidden areas might have ringworm, but we do not see that at all. The same goes for school buildings.

We then progress to evaluating (if we haven't already) the shape and size and hair (yes, colour, volume, distribution, style) of the person before us. It is all what some people might call superficial, but it is also natural to do this. Big people always impress us more, by sheer size if by nothing else. The same goes for school enrolment and demographics, and also campus acreage.

A longer period of contact allows us to evaluate other systems and their changes, especially to neurology and cognition, senses and perception. Looking at schools, this is equivalent to watching the command-and-control system, and whether proper communication and intelligence exists, and to what extent. When peripheral instability appears, it is clear the system needs treatment at the cerebral level. Perhaps a tumour exists? Perhaps there is unwanted chemical interference or imbalance? Over time, the history of a school can be tracked on a large scale by changes in administration and leadership.

But that is certainly not the whole story. Examining the muscles, bones, and areas of articulation – joints, tendons, ligaments – we can see other things. We might detect a loss of flexibility, a loss of effective power and coordination, or a gain in strength and stability. These things can give the semblance of fitness even when the brain is otherwise occupied.

Laymen can also detect to some extent whether there are aberrations in the functioning of the heart and lungs and other parts of the body which rely on obvious physical action. Can the heart take the stress? Are the lungs delivering enough oxygen? Is the stomach flatulent or otherwise engorged? Does reflux action begin to cause heartburn? In a school, when the more obvious departments and functions fail to deliver, it is time for immediate (and often successful) remediation.

Finally, where laymen do not see things so well, there is the realm of the less-obvious organs. The liver, spleen, bone marrow; it is hard to deduce malfunction until things are well on their way to ruin: a terribly jaundiced look, a perpetual state of illness – these are certainly not the heralds of a better age. Loss of healthy-looking tissue, bloat without obvious reason – these are signs that a deeper and more penetrating examination might be required.

Of course, if the institution, like the human, has been having regular medical checkups by a team of trained physicians and technicians all along, it is less likely to be entering what looks like a fin de siècle era or a time of precipitous decline. But like most of us humans, it is only too easy to put off the difficult examinations and the necessary but onerous treatments that will make the not-really-ill better.

So one day, we find ourselves going the way of all history. The overwhelming pressure on the door forces the hinges, and the door slams on yet another era – or if you are optimistic, opens onto a new era, leaving us peering backwards (if we should desire) into the ever-diminishing passages of the past.

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