The Risk Of Doing Nothing

1. My son Mac, now 5, has been interested in the Titanic story for about a year now. I shared with him the theory that had the Titanic turned itself around and parked itself next to the iceberg that it had hit, most of the passengers and crew could have gotten off the boat, onto the berg, and been rescued. (According to some oceanic archeologists, the ship could have turned itself around.) They would have been cold, for sure, but they wouldn’t have drowned. Instead, they all saw the iceberg as the threat (The Threat!!!), so they steered away from it. They didn’t see the threat as what it could be — a life saver. (I can no find no reference to this now; I heard it many years ago so I imagine it’s totally urban myth. But for this story, it serves a purpose.)

2. I recently read a publication called An avalanche is coming: Higher education and the revolution ahead.  If you work in higher education, you might consider reading it, or at least skimming it. The authors explain the avalanche metaphor this way: “The avalanche metaphor is appropriate because the one certainty for anyone in the path of an avalanche is that standing still is not an option. Indeed, it is a classic error of strategy to calculate the risks of action but fail to calculate the (often greater) risks of doing nothing” (pgs. 3-4).

Thank you sgillies at Flickr for making this image of the Gavarnie Avalanche available for use.

Thank you sgillies at Flickr for making this image of the Gavarnie Avalanche available for use.

I read words like “avalanche” (which sounds strong, forceful, and terrifying) and “revolution” (which sounds challenging and yet potentially transformative), and I get … I get … (what do I get?)  Well, I get disconcerted. But I also am inspired by a key idea in this report:

Given the state of the global economy, tensions in international relations, massive gaps between wealth and poverty, the deepening threat of climate change and the ubiquity of weapons of mass destruction, our contention is that we need a generation better educated, in the broadest and most profound sense of that word, than ever before. We need – as the London 2012 Olympics promised– an inspired generation, all of whom are well-educated and some of whom are able to provide the bold, sophisticated leadership that the 21st century demands. We need citizens ready to take personal responsibility both for themselves and for the world around them: citizens who have, and seize, the opportunity to learn and relearn throughout their lives. We need citizens who are ready and able to take their knowledge of the best that has been thought and said and done and apply it to the problems of the present and the future. This surely should be the mission of universities, and here in An Avalanche is Coming we have sought to describe the threat posed to traditional 20th century universities if key institutions don’t change radically, as well as the huge opportunities open to them if they do.
Within this, I have hope for and in heutagogy to be a significant part of the future of learning (which is related to why I underlined that sentence above, by the way).

3. I am still trying to make sense of this idea about change (which I have prattled about before),  especially as applied to real life.

Correction: Especially as applied to my real life.

Change motivates and challenges. It makes clear when things are obsolete or have outlived their usefulness. But most of all, change forces us to learn differently. If the twentieth century was about creating a sense of stability to buttress against change and then trying to adapt to it, then the twenty-first century is about embracing change, not fighting it. Embracing change means looking forward to what will come next. It means viewing the future as a new set of possibilities, rather than something that forces us to adjust. It means making the most of living in a world of motion. ~Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown: A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change

4. Another idea that’s rattling in my head right now is this, but I don’t know whom to attribute it to other than a colleague who quipped it recently in a meeting:

Never waste a crisis.

“Crisis.” Yet another scary word that is being used quite a bit in higher ed: student debt crisis; academic quality crisis; online learning / MOOC crisis; full-time faculty crisis; part-time faculty crisis; crisis this and crisis that. You name it, it’s a crisis (if you decide to call it one).

Define “crisis,” higher ed. Is it crisis because it’s change? I seriously doubt it. Perhaps it’s a crisis because change challenges our beliefs about what higher education / our university / our program should be. And because we now have to think, and act, and learn (!) differently. Perhaps *this* is the avalanche, and the revolution — the avalanche is within us, not happening to us; and the revolution can result in freeing our thinking.

5. Mac told me this last night as I turned out his light after we read a book about the Titanic:

Mama,  do you know what happens to an iceberg when it melts? It becomes water. It becomes something really different. It doesn’t get to do that if it stays an iceberg.

Icebergs, avalanches, revolutions, crises. These all demonstrate the risk of doing nothing: the most significant of which, as I see it, is not getting to learn, differently.

You’ll excuse me now please: I have to go do something.


5 thoughts on “The Risk Of Doing Nothing

  1. I’v always thought of doing nothing as an actual decision (unless one is paralysed of course by fear). I have had many patients in therapy, students and organisational leaders who choose to do nothing. It is the way the brains of conservatives are wired I think where the default is keep the status quo, even in a ‘crisis’, even in ‘change’. For some reason not many liberals, who are hard wired for change and a bit of chaos, get into positions of power. Institutions tend to be conservative in nature.

  2. I think in higher education (in the US) there are a few issues: a sense of the need to preserve what is so dear to us (because many of us grew up in the system and chose to spend our professional lives in the system — we must like the system!), the need to reject new things that challenge our beliefs about how higher education should be, and actual paralysis by the complexity of it all. I love the idea that doing nothing is, in fact, a decision (and thus you’ve decided to do something, which is, in fact, nothing). 🙂

    What I see is a whole lot of people spending a whole lot of time looking like their doing something but, in fact, are not doing much at all. One university that I was doing some consulting for spent hours in meetings reviewing a single policy and their practices, learning about other ways to enact the practice that would likely be more effective for themselves and their students (my role), and came, in the end, to the “decision” to do nothing substantially different than they were doing before.

  3. Pingback: I break stuff all the time | Major Discoveries

  4. When I think back on my life – all of my significant advancements have come through change. Sometimes change was forced on me…but I always found that instead of “doing nothing” and letting fate or fortune or external forces determine the outcome….I always made an effort to get involved and do something. In those cases where I took control and initiated the change itself – I always got a sense of power and control – and despite those fearful voices in my head saying not to do it….I never regretted making the change.

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