When I was young my family would take our yearly two-week sojourn to visit my grandparents in the mountains of southwest Virginia. They had a house on a farm which sounded exciting to my friends until they learned all they had was a few cows and a small field of corn. But for me, the worst part of it was the lack of a television in their home (which really did not matter because there was also no reception). So I was stuck entertaining myself for 14 days with some Hot Wheels and Lincoln Logs. The only thing that moved slower than the clocks was the cadence of speech amongst the native Virginians – long, drawn out words with a lot of missing consonants and vowel pronunciations I had not learned in school.
There was one interesting part of the house that perplexed me to no end – a room that we were not supposed to enter and that was never, ever used. This room was not behind a locked door; it was out in the open, fully furnished. I would have called it a living room but no living took place there. All the furniture looked old and uncomfortable – I was told the things in the room were valuable antiques that had been in the family for a long time. Each piece was covered in shiny thick plastic or some other form of protection that would keep any part of the human body from ever coming in direct contact with the surfaces in the room. The thick pile carpet was perfectly groomed such that any marks from shoes or feet would be immediately discoverable, no matter how hard you tried to “smooth” it out. I found this out the hard way, on several occasions. It was one of the few times I heard my grandfather string more than a few words together. It turns out he had quite a colorful vocabulary when adequately provoked. Trespassing in this family museum room was such an occasion. And I knew he was capable of speaking faster than was his practice.
As we visited other relatives scattered throughout the Blue Ridge mountains, I came to find that almost every relative of a certain age had a similar shrine in their house – an homage to hermetically sealed, old and unused furniture. I spent many summers asking everyone I could find to explain this phenomenon but never got an answer that made sense. As far as I could tell, this was just something that was done. As I have grown to the age of the grandparents of my youth, I have come to a better understanding of their motivation. Their generation saw an enormous amount of rapid change: world wars, a great depression, to landing men on the moon. Preserving the past provided reminders of the unhurried times of their youth; it provided a sense of comfort.
The children of today, including our teenagers at Wardlaw+Hartridge, embrace rapid change; innovation is ubiquitous. It feels like personal technology is upgraded on a weekly basis and our high school students are thrilled by it. As digital natives, they view change as a natural and inevitable progression. With few exceptions (the resurgence of vinyl LPs comes to mind), newer, faster, better is now expected, and those technologies that cannot keep up, fall by the wayside (think Apple iPods).
It is our goal as teachers in the Upper School to help our students understand how the next generation of things is created. In their science courses, students learn the differences between design iteration and design innovation – small modifications versus big leaps. Throughout our curriculum students are also taught to rigorously explore and understand the past, to learn to communicate clearly across media platforms, to access and understand primary resources, and to know the difference between summarizing research and original scholarship. All of these habits of the mind prepare our graduates to plan for a future that has never been more unpredictable.
While this uncertainty may cause folks of a certain age great trepidation, our adolescents see this as an opportunity – a chance to create. They have been raised in an era where almost nothing seems impossible. Innovation is inevitable and results in a brighter world. I look forward to watching our W+H students use their talents to create a better future. For me, maybe it is time to start bringing my parents’ furniture out of storage, adding a layer of protection, and spending my time looking (but not touching) the objects of my past. On the other hand, I think not – it’s time to upgrade my phone and get a bigger TV!