The Challenge of New

One hundred years ago my father at age 9 entered America. He had traveled from his birthplace in a town in what is now Ukraine across the vast expanse of Siberia on the Trans-Siberian railroad to its eastern extreme at Vladivostok, from there by ship to Kyoto, Japan and then 6 weeks on a tramp steamer across the whole of the Pacific Ocean to Seattle to meet the father he had not known, who brought him and his mother to Chicago to settle in a new land. This immense voyage in space and in time must have been, disorienting, yet that is far too weak a word for the changes he had to confront. He left a town shattered by war, likely without electricity, telephones, or motor driven transport, an agrarian country where farming, as it had been done for centuries, was the main industry and where industrialization had virtually no impact. Transported into a new world by steam railroad and ship to an industrialized world with electric lights, indoor plumbing, central heating, electric streetcars, telephones, and an abundance of food; he would soon see know air travel, radio, refrigeration, skyscrapers, and of course automobiles. During his all too short lifetime of 45 more years, he would travel on a jet plane, use the modern air powered tools of dentistry to save people from the pain of tooth decay, watch television, buy a house in the suburbs, and travel comfortably throughout much of the United States.

To my lasting regret, I never thought to ask him how he navigated such profound changes, changes in technology, in community, in governance, and in economics. He was just 20 years-old when the Great Depression started. He was 33 years-old when, as a brand-new father, he went into the army. And he was 43 years-old when he left the dirty crowded big city to join the suburban green migration. I often think about the profound and yes unprecedented changes he lived through as I consider what we are going through today. Like him, I am, and actually all of us are, experiencing changes we could never have even imagined in our best science fiction, changes in the nature of work, in the technology we use and the capabilities and comforts it brings, in our political systems, our communications, our personal interactions, in who we marry and what we spend our time on. I wonder often how he felt about those last generation changes, how disorienting they were to him and to others, and how that concerned him. I wonder, as I talk with family, friends, and associates, how our disorienting profound and unprecedented changes compare to his. I wonder if the first Americans, who invaded virgin land, faced with unseen animals, unfamiliar plants, and unknown geological challenges. I wonder if we are, after all, so very different, and if as humans we are most fortunate to have the gift of a flexible mind to enable us to change, to meet the challenges of the new.

My father was by most standards an incredibly successful human being. He was happily married, had three boys who have all had their own families and made useful contributions to their communities. Despite coming here with no English and likely little formal educational experience he learned, becoming a dentist, a community leader and in his later years started a second career as a teacher building a revolutionary new program to educate dental assistants. He not only served his new country and his various communities, he played a key role in their growth and transformations. I can only hope his grandchildren and great grandchildren should be so successful.

He managed to do all of this during a time of change in every area of his life. I have, therefore, hope that in our time of amazing change, when our world, our jobs, our technologies, our communities are so profoundly transforming, we take comfort that our generation is not alone. Our forefathers too have, from time to time, succeeded in navigating such amazing periods. For, I am sure my father would agree, these times of tumult are also times of great energy, these times that look so scary are also times of promise, these times when we cannot see the future are ones we can instinctually navigate. I picture my dad riding on a wobbly rail car across the great stretches of Russia comforting his very frightened mother and believing in a better future. This was his gift to me, and it is the gift I pass on to my children, grandchildren, and all my students. It is why I am so deeply sure that technology not only shakes up our world, it gives us the power to reinvent it. It will give us the power to reimagine education and enable all our children to thrive in their new world.