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GRAVES: Change comes as it is acceptable

By Joe Graves

Mitchell Superintendent

When I walked out the door of Sioux Falls Lincoln High School some 33 years ago, I felt the odd mixture of joy and melancholy I think most people feel upon leaving high school. The joy of accomplishment. The melancholy of leaving behind something so familiar, so comfortable. I wondered in my mind if I would ever step foot in those halls again.

I did, but just once, around 15 years later during a mentorship with Dr. John Harris, the Harvard-trained, long-serving superintendent of Sioux Falls who a number of us nicknamed “Gentleman John,” precisely because he was one.

As I wandered the halls that summer day, purposely ahead of my scheduled appointment with the LHS principal, I found myself drawn to just two places: the Statesman (newspaper) office and the debate room. Not surprising to those knowledgeable of my athletic prowess, I spent my high school years engaged in the manly endeavors of journalism and forensics. I loved them both and still today find myself hearkening back to the many skills I sharpened and the lessons I learned in those activities. One of the debate axioms — and one I didn’t really consider all that relevant back then — has been especially useful, that of the presumption of the status quo. In team policy debate, in which two sides — the affirmative and the negative — square off against one another over a pre-determined issue, the affirmative has the obligation to win all major points or the negative wins because the negative is the defender of the status quo, the current situation, and since the current situation “works,” it has the presumption. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t. Put more persuasively, giving the status quo the presumption prevents all of the wild-eyed, utopian, works-on-paper schemes from obliterating the progress of centuries. When society lurches toward anything that basically scorches the earth of the past — think Nazism, Bolshevism, the French Revolution — the results are never what has been promised. In fact, the results are usually unmitigated disasters.

I try to remember this fact whenever presented with the latest conclusion of futurists, those wide-eyed thinkers who can just “see” the cataclysmic changes coming our way, urging us to get ready by adopting them now. In 1970, in one such example, Alvin Toffler published “Future Shock,” in which he pointed to enormous technological and social changes on the way and worried the people would, as a result, suffer from what he termed “future shock,” defined as a psychological malady resulting from “too much change in too short a period of time.”

Yet, at least in my impression, we haven’t seen much of such neuroses.

People seem to be adjusting to the various social changes and even rejoicing in new technological breakthroughs. I would concede the point that the elderly are, at least as a group through many individual exceptions certainly exist, less flexible to both sorts of change. (In fact, the older I get, the more convinced I am in the theory that the real reason for human mortality is not physical but psychological; Methuselah-ian life spans of centuries or millennia would leave us all incapable of functioning once a certain change-limit had been reached.) The reason most people can make the adjustment, I think, is simple. Change comes only at a rate that most people can accept it. Otherwise, it is rejected.

I find this comforting. Today, in education, we are experiencing a tidal wave of pedagogical changes. Flipped classrooms, mass customized learning, virtual learning, holographic instructors, the commodification of lectures, etc., all point to the imminent destruction of the current instructional model. The old days of high school graduation being determined by the number of hours you sit in a classroom and the separation between high school and post-secondary school rigidly sustained and demarcated by commencement are increasingly over. But not entirely so.

Not entirely so because the imminence of all these new models are only so in terms of the ability of students, parents and educators to accept them and work them into the current educational program.

And the “increasingly” aspect of the breakdown between high school and post-secondary is just that, a rather gradually changing phenomenon, the rate of which is set by the people experiencing it and both their willingness and ability to do so.

And this is not just not all bad but probably very much for the good. The current instructional model has worked pretty well for generations of students. A rapid but not hasty introduction of these positive new changes will allow current students and educators to make the adjustment, to keep what still works well in the status quo, and to weed out the radical changes which seem promising but really don’t work in practice.

Which is either one of the rules of reality which makes human progress manageable and thus possible or one more indication that, indeed, I am getting old.

-Write to Joe Graves at