Like a virus, an idea doesn’t look like much without the context of the place and time where it interacts with the world.
Change comes from a willingness to try something that doesn’t match what’s come before. When an iceberg calves from a glacier we see sudden transformation as tons of ice crash into the sea. But what we don’t necessarily see is the inexorable, relentless push of the glacier down to the sea, the long-term, root cause of the calving front. The thunderous change we observe is the sudden visibility of what’s really a deeper, longer, richer process.
On a recent family road trip we stopped to visit the high school my mother attended in the 1950's. Located in the crumbling outskirts of Newark, New Jersey, Weequahic High School stands as a testament to the one universal truth: everything changes.
In the middle decades of the 20th century, Weequahic was regarded as one of the 10 best public high schools in the entire country. Philip Roth went there; Albert Einstein lectured there; the curriculum taught Chinese and Swahili there before most Americans ever thought there would be a reason to learn things other than Romance languages.
Everything changes. Located amid the depressing ruins of what used to be one of the nation's great cities, the front of the school faces Chancellor Avenue now like the broken friezes at Abu Simbel face the Egyptian desert. Inside the front door, the proud, inspiring post-modernist murals that met the historically extraordinary student body decades ago hide now behind cheap plexiglass shields to forestall abuse and degradation. The hallways show cracks and off-kilter locker doors. The lighting sputters and flickers for want of fresh bulbs. The paint peels. The sentiment that immediately floods a visitor is one of sadness, of lost opportunities, of societies beat up and beat down.
Students still attend.
My mother still speaks of her days there with reverence and respect. The aging alumni with whom she's still in contact--and they are a spectacularly accomplished bunch--still hold up the image of the place as if it were a light in the darkness of a descended city. They still talk about obligations to the future, and responsibilities for the past, and deep values locked in the DNA of a great idea.
Why write about this for a blog that purports to be about creativity? After visiting this remarkable, uniquely American place-- sharing stories, listening to legends, considering the implications-- a deeply resonant thrum begins to flood in. Those feelings yield to thinking. Thinking turns to cognition.
To wit: good ideas are not enough. The history of civilization, from its technological advances to its cultural inventions to its wide and endlessly surprising art, all spring from good ideas. But plenty of good ideas have come to naught. The great civilizations of middle America in the last millennium routinely slaughtered endless lives as human sacrifices even as they turned back the jungle and fed hundreds of thousands, building astounding cities and mathematical frameworks and orderly societies.
How many screenplays have rattled around people's heads without finding enough traction to make it to completion? How many paintings and dances and poems have simply crumbled beneath the realities of making those works whole, of bringing resources of time and clarity and money to bear on their completion? The continuity of good, profound ideas sometimes does not overcome the inertial forces of desert sands grinding those ideas down.
Even great civilizations crumble.
But ideas endure. Those murals still exist inside the front atrium of Weequahic High School. There are inspirations still embedded in the fading paint, capable of inspiring new students. That is, the potential for inspiration still obtains if the power of good ideas can be nurtured and cultivated, supported and reinvigorated.
Things always change. If we adopt this as a true statement, then we also open the potential for great things to rise from seemingly irretrievable pieces. Sometimes things change for the better.
We should therefore commit to engaging the world in an endless process of creation.
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