A Vaccine to Cure A Shortsighted Society

We are an impatient society. Perhaps it has always been so, but as I read about our history I continue to be impressed by the foresight and commitment of leaders who assumed they were building for something more than their immediate needs and interests. Our thoughts turn quickly to the industrial leaders of the late 19th and early 20th centuries as examples. They did lay a foundation on which much has been built since. Yet their ideas and actions were inspiration for many entrepreneurs and business leaders at regional and local levels who planned for a horizon that would exceed their own lives.

There are many other sectors of society beyond business, however, through which the social fabric of our nation also was made strong. Thoughtful government leaders worked to form ideas, shape policies and build an infrastructure that would be an enduring benefit to the nation. Civil rights leaders worked for a just society, not just a prosperous one. The endeavors of science, technology and medicine were supported as if they were natural resources to protect, while education was understood to be a public good, not just a private good.

Critics will note these advances also have produced some unintended consequences and collateral effects. Indeed this is true. Environmental impacts have cost us more than we would have anticipated and now require increasing levels of commitment to rebalance. Economic prosperity has been uneven and disproportionate. Government leaders have, in some cases, become unprincipled politicians. We have made amazing gains in medicine, but struggle to manage the economics of health. The pace of technological change has yielded patterns of disruption that spur growth, but come at a cost. Unbridled ambition can result in harsh impacts if not weighed against the broader societal benefits and the full range of consequences.

The reality is that our vision for the future is limited by our capacity to connect the dots both over time and among societal trends and patterns. Accordingly, we do a bit of groping in the dark and we set our course for the next horizon. Yet even with this path of uncertainty before us, how we choose to move forward and the ways in which we prepare coming generations matters a lot.

Our society is trapped in a current pattern in which the sensational is more important than the substantive; the instant more important than the enduring; and consuming is more important than preserving. If I could inject American society with a vaccine to cure what ails us, I would begin with equal portions of the following key ingredients:

Quiet determination. I have great admiration for people who are deeply rooted in their commitments. The focus they bring to deliberations and actions offers a sense of stability even when the circumstances are fluid. So much in society is reaction instead of response. Too often our thinking is about the next quarter or next year, rather than the next generation. The more we can direct energy to our long-term interests, the less we will add complexity and instability to the present.

Consistent discipline. The everyday behaviors of individuals, organizations and societies drive the future for all. I am often reminded “we do big things a little at a time.” Discipline, for me, involves a sense of resolve that I will not do anything halfway. I may only get halfway to my goal over a certain span of time, but that will not be due to a lack of effort. As a society, if we can do the little things well, we have a better shot at tacking the big things.

Purposeful organization. There are times when an organization can become an end in itself, rather than the means to an end. It’s easy to lose sight of purpose when the care and feeding of the organization is the primary task, and the sense of mission is lost. We should not be surprised by organizational decay and ineffectiveness when the focus becomes inward, the participants insular and the leadership isolated. Renewing our understanding of organization as the servant of purpose will take us far in restoring a vision that exceeds our narrow and temporal self-interest.

Relentless execution. As plans are set in motion it takes the time and energy of all involved to make an initiative successful. Setbacks are inevitable, but when thoughtful criticism turns into accusations and blame, execution stops and the initiative is imperiled. Effective execution is not about rigidity; it’s about never giving up.

These are the lessons of history, even with all the blemishes spotting our collective record of achievement. If we can restore commitments such as these, they will gradually become the normative expectations we have for each other and for our society. It begins with the smallest things and yet big things can happen over a long period of time.

Ready? OK. Roll up your sleeve. It will hurt a little now, but you will be much healthier in the long run.

About the Author

Mark Putnam

I'm the lucky individual who carries the title, 21st president of Central College in Pella, Iowa. My wife Tammy and I have two beautiful daughters, Emma and Greta. Passionate about higher education and the issues facing it and the world today, I hope to invoke an engaging conversation with all who are ready to dig in, make a difference and build for the future. Share your thoughts. I'm listening and interested.



14 responses to A Vaccine to Cure A Shortsighted Society

Don Huffman says:

It is certainly reasonable to accept suggestions for producing a much healthier person/institution/government, etc.,but in addition to the specific advice offered, it also important to have credible knowledge and information to undergird one’s decision making. No amount of hard work by leaders or “those in the trenches” of academe will likely produce needed results from decisions made in ignorance. This is the very reason why a procuctive society/education must provide not only determination, disipline, organization and execution of ideas, but must exercise wisdom and knowledge of factual conditions/situations before making decisions which influence results that can be more than blemishes on our record os achievement.

Sara Miskimins says:

I read President Putnam’s essay with the implicit understanding that education/knowledge is the foundation for his list of suggestions. That and a good dose of common sense go a long way in curing ills. I’m afraid though that too many in our shortsighted society have either forgotten that or never learned it in the first place.

Daniel Ginn says:

“Our society is trapped in a current pattern in which the sensational is more important than the substantive; the instant more important than the enduring; and consuming is more important than preserving.”

That’s the best part of the essay right there, Mark. The hard part is knowing what’s worth preserving anymore with all the different competing interest groups. Much of what you’ve stated above requires a singular purpose and unifying vision shared amongst a broad spectrum of people, and that would require letting go of some of the insulating comforts that diversity gives us in order to conform to this. How would you change the hearts of the people and–at the same time–avoid being cast as a villian and a tyrant for doing so?

Don Huffman says:

You’ll have to pardon my tendency to offer too much commentary to this topic, but I truly believe that the ideas and actions of our citizens could be changed by the traditional “liberal arts” approach in higher education, in which the shallower view of useful knowledge includes a deep appreciation of factual information in diverse areas. Without this all knowledge becomes superficial and of little value in problem solving.

George Brown, Jr. says:

Annie Dillard once noted that “We live on dead people’s heads.” She observed that thirteen settlements, stacked one on top of the other, existed under one of today’s St. Louis suburbs. None of us have gotten to where we are today without the contributions of those who have gone before us. As an entering freshman at Central College in 1961, I was assigned a room in Gaass Hall where I lived for three years. My entire Central experience was made possible by the foresight and generosity of earlier generations. So to Mark’s three ingredients, I would add a fourth: gratitude. Gratitude invites us to look back with appreciation for the legacy previous generations have left for our benefit and encourages us to contemplate what we will leave as an inheritance for future generations. A grateful heart is needed to activate discipline, organization, and execution.

Lori Witt says:

Well said, George! Now I need to go find that Annie Dillard quote and story–it’s been a while since I’ve read her. It illustrates the value and importance of our history so well!

Wiliam K. Wehrell - class of 57 says:

Many of us recognize deficiencies, short-sightedness, shallow (profit-motivated) goals, and yearn for a more noble and fairly structured society, but – alas, we just cannot believe that in this “bottom line” world, any one person can make a difference. (I see this all the time, as friends and acquaintances don’t even participate in state and federal elections.)

George Brown,Jr. says:

Lori, the quote is from Annie Dillard’s book, For the Time Being (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), p. 124.

Jennifer Giezendanner says:

I so appreciate these words by Dr. Putnam and the rest who have commented. Funny thing is, though, that none of it can be achieved by a simple “shot in the arm.” Sort of ironic point, isn’t it?

Don Huffman says:

I was told many years ago that anything that can be explained or solved in simple terms cannot be the full truth. It is still true as far as I can see!
Don Huffman

Stan Durey '71 says:

When reading through President Putnam’s vaccine essay, I was reminded to check on how long it had been since I had received a tetanus/pertussis booster. It had indeed been over a decade, so I now have that comforting ache in my shoulder from the shot. For that I am personally grateful. But his words also reminded me of a recent piece I had written in response to a column in our local daily.

One of the staff columnists had quite severely taken to task the parents in Massachusetts who recently filed suit to prevent their children from having to recite the pledge of allegiance because it contains the words under God. He accused the parents of trying to “rewrite history”, but nowhere in his column did he ever bother to present the history he accused them of rewriting. He spoke of the pledge as if it must have been handed to the founding fathers etched in stone. This tendency to argue without facts is a habit all too common in the era President Putnam describes wherein “the sensational is more important than the substantive”. We have become too content to advocate without either the determination or discipline to first look at the entire issue, not just our side.

Before continuing, two acknowledgements to Dr. Huffman’s comments. I absolutely believe a liberal arts education can and should be an essential part of any serum. But I also accept for myself his self-admonishment for perhaps saying too much in this forum. With that mea culpa, I will say entirely too much by presenting an edited version of my letter in brackets below.

[Friends and acquaintances will tell you I am quick to raise arguments of correlation versus causality and to discuss issues, when appropriate, identifying the presence of cognitive dissonance. In that regard, how do we resolve the fact that the founding fathers, who inserted God into our seminal documents, did in those same documents institutionalize slavery and prevent half of the population, the female half, from participating in their grand experiment. Can we dismiss the institutionalized racism and paternalism as fashions of the time and not see the appeal to some higher power in the same light? God was certainly more present in the public forum in the 18th century, but so were slavery and the oppression of women. I don’t offer an answer. I only suggest that one is intellectually dishonest to pretend these questions should not be asked; that one must address honestly the dissonant notion of “certain unalienable Rights” applying to a privileged few, not all. When writing history, we have to face all of our history, not just the glossily convenient parts.

As to correlation versus causality, one often hears the argument that many of our social ills owe their cause to the removal of God from our public life. How does the pledge argument fit in this equation? The Greatest Generation, my parents and yours, and their parents before them, recited the Pledge of Allegiance without under God as part of the language. It didn’t seem to have harmed them, either as believers or as patriots. We fought in two world wars without pledging to the flag of a nation under God. We somehow managed to win both. My great-great grandfather lived his entire life without any pledge whatsoever. My great grandfather was born into a country without a pledge of allegiance and lived the first twenty five of his ninety seven year span without it. Only in the final nine years of his life did he have to learn to insert under God in a recitation. So before we declare those opposed to under God guilty of rewriting history, I think we ought to first understand the history. And if we have become less godly in the last sixty years, should we believe it is because we inserted God into the pledge? Let us look at the history.

Proponents of keeping God in the pledge seem quite content to forget, or perhaps do not know, the pledge itself was not a product of the founding fathers. It didn’t exist during our Revolutionary War or Civil War. It only came into being in 1892 as part of a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus landing in the New World. It was written by a Baptist minister, a self described Christian Socialist. It did not contain the words United States of America or God. A number of groups lobbied for occasional changes, resulting in revisions over the following sixty years, and only in 1954 did the disputed words make it into the pledge.

It is accepted as fact that the Knights of Columbus campaigned during the late 1940s and early 1950s to have under God inserted, but the effort did not succeeded until 1954, when, in the context of the rabidly anti-communist rhetoric of the era of McCarthyism, Congress enacted legislation to insert the controversial words, subsequently signed into law by President Eisenhower. The pledge thus became a bulwark against godless communism. To clearly state the facts, we have a pledge, some 121 years of age, and the words under God have been part of it for 59 of those 121 years.

So who is asking for a rewrite of history? From whose history and from what era do we begin the edit? Shall we go back to the pledge to Betsy Ross’ flag, to Abraham Lincoln’s? Oh, that’s right, we didn’t have one in either of their times. Should we begin with the version in use under either of the Presidents Roosevelt, versions without God? My life will not likely change in any dramatic way with the two disputed words included or excluded. I can recite it by speaking or not speaking the words as fits my beliefs or mood, but if we are going to have a discussion, we should have a discussion of all of the facts, not those most convenient to a given position. As for the Massachusetts parents, I suggest they tell their children to face the flag, hand over heart, and when the dreaded two words arrive, remain silent.]

Thank you for bearing with me. I firmly believe we cannot successfully formulate any vaccine by resorting to short sighted arguments devoid of truthful dialogue. Any serum must incorporate a discussion of all the facts, not just those few we embrace because they happen to suit our immediate purpose.

Don Huffman says:

Well said. This almost a transfusion in addition to a vaccination.

Leland Schipper says:

When history is written, its characters are inherently those who had a lasting impact. Thus, when reading Dr. Putnams words, “Our society is trapped in a current pattern in which the sensational is more important than the substantive; the instant more important than the enduring; and consuming is more important than preserving,”
I wonder if this is simply a matter of perspective.

I am inclined to believe that when our distant progeny reflect on our era of history, they will not remember us as a trapped society. Instead, they will remember those individuals who self administered the vaccine Dr. Putnam described. Where I disagree with the tone of Dr. Putnam’s essay, however, is that I believe these individuals exist and are actively impacting our world today.

Of course, it will take us hundreds of years to fully recognize their contributions. But I am certain that when our great, great, great grandchildren look back at our accomplishments as they are described in history, they will write about how their society is failing to innovate in meaningful and lasting ways as their ancestors once did.

Don Huffman says:

This is an excellent point to make. We’ve all studied “history” as if it were fully factual, when in fact we have mainly seen only those items which were apparently judged successful for those who wrote history as we learned it.
Indeed, those who will influence the future are those who exist now, but whose contributions may be disregarded or overlooked by those currently at the reins of our institutions and society.
When we select our vaccine to cure our society’s/institution’s ills we should hope to use the most effective one for the ills perceived. Otherwise, we will never be immune to poor choices and decisions made by poorly qualified decision makers.