I’ve been talking about “paradigm shift” a lot lately, much to the annoyance of people who are tired of seeing that rubric misused and overused. But bear with me, because it is apt and irreplaceable sometimes, and one of those times is now.
If you haven’t already read the introduction to Tony Judt’s new book, Ill Fares The Land, do it now. Judt has written with the urgency of a man gravely ill who knows his time is likely to be brief. The result is not a polemic, but a clear-eyed, heartwrenching appeal to awaken from the trance of hypercapitalism and rescue the notion of common good before it is trampled to death in the pursuit of material self-interest. It is simple and clear and to me, undeniably true.
When historian of science Thomas Kuhn proposed the term “paradigm shift” for a change of scientific consensus, he meant something precise: A paradigm shift takes place when an older system of understanding can no longer hold newly emerging knowledge. If you are certain the earth is flat, and evidence accumulates that ships sailing over the farthest horizon return, rather than plunging into nothingness, your old model of planetary reality shatters, making way for a new one.
How can you tell when a new model is emerging? How about when all around you, smart and articulate people are writing things that have the exact tone and character of awakening from slumber? Judt’s piece reproduces that eye-blinking, “Where am I?” experience, in which a confusing blur gives way to a startling clarity. A mass of detail falls away. It reveals the simplicity obscured by what Nassim Nicholas Taleb so aptly calls our “expert problem,” or “empty suit problem,” a tendency to fall for impressive-sounding nonsense packaged in gray flannel and power ties.
I’m not talking about awakening to a bright, clean new reality, where all our problems have been magically solved. Anyone who tells you that is possible is trying to sell you an illusion, like Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” campaign of 1984. In truth, every moment has its “thematic universe,” as the late, great Paulo Freire explained: a clash of ideas, values, forces that together characterize it—fundamentalism meeting relativism, sensitivities meeting blind spots, kindling the spark that fuels the spirit of the times.
So yes, the vicious anti-immigrant feeling I wrote about a few days ago persists, rattling around our thematic universe and bumping into the astounding mobility of people and cultures that also marks our moment. We are more sensitive than ever to the need for environmental healing, even as offshore drilling spreads death and destruction in its wake. Tipping points are thick on the ground, and each of us must decide whether to put our weight on the side of emergent possibility, or lean in the other direction in the hope of slowing change.
But almost every day, I read or hear something gorgeously free of the encrusted cant of the old paradigm, something packed with information that the old paradigm simply can’t contain. It is an interesting fact of human discourse that we are more persuaded by the words of the repentant sinner than by those of the virtuous sage. It is intrinsically easier to believe—or at least derive a sense of possibility from—those who have seen the error of their ways. Diane Ravitch is this month’s convert to educational democracy. She has been engaging the wonderful progressive educator Deborah Meier in an online dialogue. Yesterday, she took on the imaginary educational “consensus” purported to underpin President Obama’s costly mistake in appropriating $5 billion for his “Race to the Top” in education, which turns what should be the sacred trust of contributing equally to every child’s future into a pointless spectacle of winners and losers:
As for the so-called “consensus,” it is purely a fiction manufactured by elite opinion-makers, think tanks, and big foundations, the ones I describe in my book as “the billionaire boys’ club.” All we need, say the cheerleaders for the consensus, is more private management of public schools and more use of test scores to evaluate and reward teachers. Notice that the purveyors of this wrong-headed consensus never point to any other nation as a model. And no wonder: there is none. We are embarked on a radical scheme to deconstruct our public education system, to de-professionalize teaching and supervision, and to turn teachers into data-obsessed functionaries.
Take heart, readers! Despite the massive contradictions of our thematic universe, something is emerging. The old container is crumbling, and the contours of a new paradigm are being revealed. I have been speaking and writing about it wherever I go, especially the emergence of culture as the center of public value and social change. It will be the subject of my new book. Judt and Ravitch focus on political history, the economy, and education. Clear-sighted awakening testimonies are bursting through every field of endeavor, glowing like tulips in spring.
If I had the power to make you remember this—that something is emerging, even as bad news piles up around us—I would use it now, when each of has the choice to be part of the leading wedge. But, in truth, the power is already yours.