This I Believe

Alden - Danby, Vermont
Entered on June 21, 2006

What’s A Heaven For?

I was burned out. Thirty-eight years of teaching high school students and toiling in the boiler room as an administrator had fried the wires. Like many of my contemporaries, I decided it was time to do something else. Retirement looked attractive, but I wasn’t convinced I could move from the roiling waters of the workaholic to the stillness of the idyll. My problem became how to figure out what I would do next and to make sure that what I did was really what I wanted to do.

So I sat at my desk and thought, and I wrote and I paced and looked out the window as the caterpillars chewed up the maples. The dendrites in my brain felt like the ravaged trees surrounding my house. Eventually, I realized that the key to figuring out what I wanted to do was to figure out what I believe.

I remembered I had become a teacher because I wanted to do something that mattered, something that gave me at least the illusion that my life had some sort of meaning, and I believed deeply in the importance of education. I still do. As I thought about my years in school, I realized that what most excited me were the times I worked with other teachers developing a vision of what we thought education should be. What did the diploma stand for? What knowledge? What skills or abilities? What qualities of character and intellect? And how would we create a school that would embody and achieve our vision? We met and fought and cajoled and laughed as we worked to answer these questions. We rode the waves of intensity and passion, and we created a better school.

And, as I sat at my desk watching the caterpillars, I realized I believe in the power of vision. Like others who were young in the ‘50s and ‘60s, I grew up listening to the voices of Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy, seeing their visions of a better America, absorbing their idealism. And despite their flaws and failures, their visions changed America. Jim Crow segregation ended; we walked on the moon; we asked what we could do for our country.

A vision can inspire people, bring them together to work for a common goal. Our reach must exceed our grasp, or, as Robert Browning asked, “what’s a heaven for”? If we can’t imagine a better world, how can we hope to create a better world? Vision creates possibility and direction; without vision we can only stumble through life.

Yet it seems to me that fewer and fewer of our leaders—in government, business, education—have much imagination or vision. I came to understand that my own burnout resulted from the gradual disappearance of leaders with vision. So many school administrators seem as baffled by “the vision thing” as was George H. W. Bush.

Our leaders seem, increasingly, to be managers rather than visionaries. Their decisions reflect not an intention to create a better world but more mundane preoccupations: expediency (the path of least resistance), fear (primarily of litigation and losing their job) and a craving for affection.

Decisions are made ad hoc with little sense of any larger context or understanding of implication or long-term effects. We don’t have to look hard to see the results of this lack of vision. We have Iraq, the US automobile industry, pollution and too many mediocre schools. Vision is essential to effective leadership in any career.

This I believe. Now, I’ll find something to do.