A Sense of Time

Education as the Infinite Game

© 1999 Michael Umphrey

"A hasty man drinks tea with a fork."
Chinese proverb


Isolated in Time         The Art of Slow Thinking    
Finding the Right Story          Playing the Infinite Game
Joined in Time


Isolated in time

In the early 1400s a new technology changed people's relationship to each other by changing their experience of time. Huge towers were built in the centers of many towns, and enormous clocks too costly for individual ownership were installed. Their periodic tolling drifted through the countryside, and folks, suddenly able to coordinate individual schedules with new precision, began to collaborate in ways they had scarcely imagined.

Today, we are overwhelmed by collaboration. All of us keep, or are kept by, schedules. An artist ordering invitations for a show featuring old-fashioned craft might drop his sketch off at a quick print franchise on main street. He need not be aware of what happens next: with clocks ticking every step of the way, the design is digitized--atoms of black ink on white paper converted to bits--and the bits are bounced off a satellite to a print shop in Hong Kong where they are reconverted to atoms. Paper with ink barely dry is rushed to the airport and loaded onto a jet. Later that week, the artist picks up the finished job back on main street.

Such everyday tasks require the organization of hundreds of people. It's the way we live now. The clock has become so successful that we no longer need to hear it tolling in the village commons. We have our own clocks strapped to our arms and mounted on our dashboards, and we rush through the week without a village tower in sight.

Unfortunately, though society has never been more organized, we have along the way lost the sense of common purpose. Though we know our lives are endlessly entangled in other people's lives, all of us are specialists. The airline worker loading boxes of printed matter onto the conveyer belt in Hong Kong feels no relationship to the artist whose work he is assisting. He has other reasons for his work. His motivations are private rather than communal.

Most of us are only vaguely aware of the systems that now shape us. We don't know for sure who shaped them or what they are really up to. Because commerce has made the most visible and spectacular use of modern organization, we suspect that a lot of what is happening happens because someone is making money. Though this may not be bad, enriching someone else is hardly a goal that brings people together. Instead, we keep moving, trying to put aside a little something for ourselves. 

The organizing clocks that once brought us together now seem to isolate us.

Meanwhile, we feel the pressure of  a constant frenzy of. Change is the name of the game, the consultants keep assuring us. We find that we need to forget at a high speed just to make room for the new.

And truly, change is important.

But we should remember that continuity is equally important. Since the economy will ensure change occurs, we may need to make a special, conscious effort to strengthen those institutions that preserve memory and that encourage slow thinking: a long view of the future.

The Art of Slow Thinking

In his strange book The Clock of the Long Now Stewart Brand reports that in 1980 the Swedish Navy received a letter from the Forestry Department reporting that the ship lumber that had been requested was ready. In 1829, the Swedish Parliament had ordered twenty thousand trees planted on Visingsö, in the lake Vätern. It took 150 years for an oak to mature and they anticipated a shortage of ship lumber during the 1990s. The move had been opposed by the Bishop of Strängnäs because he didn't believe people would still have wars by then and even if they did ships would probably no longer be made of wood.

Parliament overrode him. They got the details wrong but by thinking in the long term they did the right thing anyway. The worth of that mature oak forest today is beyond calculation.

Young people will find the rapid-moving information of video games and the like on their own but they need our help to see those things that change very slowly if they change at all. I said this to a school superintendent not long ago and he answered, "What things?" He was genuinely perplexed.

He understood his work to be refocusing the school's attention with every passing bubble of media headlines or grant awards. Running a school, by his lights, was not significantly different than playing a video game. Keep your eyes on the screen. Keep moving. Last year it was community service. Right now it is school-to-work. Whatever. Just react.

The unfortunate effect of such leadership is a kind of self-inflicted dementia. Dedication to staying in sync with rapidly changing fads rather than to holding long-term memory and continuing steady effort toward important goals leads schools to change directions with every shifting breeze of fashion. Like a person with Alzheimer's one school I worked for seemed unable to remember from moment to moment what it was doing, what remained to be done, or even who its friends were. We began lots of things but finished nothing. The bookshelves in the administrative offices were laden with unread binders left behind by abandoned projects that had not so long ago been touted as the solution to our worst problems.

Teachers were accustomed to being corralled into workshops and given lots of handouts and hearing lots of promises, but they knew there would be no follow through. Next year they would be on to something different. They would efficiently forget all this. They sat politely but they no longer listened.

Sad. Schools should primarily be caretakers of the slow knowledge we call wisdom. And schools should dedicate themselves to even slower realities. The most powerful education is not driven by markets or election cycles. Instead, it aims passing on cultural knowledge that has taken centuries to build and that will remain useful even after our business partners change and our transportation systems are re-invented. It's okay that cultural mores and institutional practices change more slowly than markets. That's their job. "Don't hurry," should be the motto inscribed over every schoolroom door.

Though commerce rightfully focuses on short term needs and shifts, seeing that new houses are built where they are needed and that fluctuations in supply and demand are communicated so that the movement of commodities more or less reflects our needs, governments should attend to slower movements, building infrastructure that will last for decades and centuries, negotiating relationships that last longer than specific markets, pondering what might happen when the mother lode peters out.

Teachers should be less interested in high velocity markets and the shifting priorities of political election cycles than in passing on the techniques of intelligence--such things as how to evaluate evidence, how to use math to perceive patterns too large or too small for direct observation, what it takes to develop friendships and alliances, how to organize a town and hold it together, what it feels like to win a kingdom but lose your soul, how fights begin and how they end, how justice comes into the world and how it perishes, how to discern between things ephemeral and things of permanent worth, and so on.

People tend to get more moral and more reasonable as they get older because they have had to live with more consequences of bad choices. Wendell Berry noted that morality is nothing other than long-term practicality. As people see and understand longer time frames, their thinking gets stronger and their decision-making gets better. The same is true of institutions. Companies that rely on repeat customers tend to be more honest and fair than those who believe that tomorrow will always be a brand new game.

The single simplest thing to do to make schools more sensible institutions and to make the education they deliver of more worth is to develop institutional practices that lead people--administrators, teachers, board members, and students--to consider what is happening over long periods of time. 

Schools today need institutional practices and institutional goals that refocus them upon the long-term and that organize their daily labors around visions longer than a 45-minute period, longer than a semester, longer than a superintendent's tenure, and longer than this political cycle's hot problem. Longer even than a teacher's career.

Finding the Right Story

The best place to develop support for such practices and goals is not in the school board room so much as in families and neighborhoods. Our communities came before us and will outlast us, but they depend upon us if they are to be beautiful and just and prosperous, just as we depend upon them if we are to be happy, secure, and at home.

What we need is a story that makes doing the right thing apparent to many people.

The power of such stories are easily seen in today's schools. As local political institutions public schools are sometimes quite attentive to what the community decides it wants. If school administrators had their way, many schools would cut their athletic programs. They are costly and take large amounts of administrative time. But of course, schools do not cut athletic programs. In fact, an important part of getting hired as an administrator in many schools is to be on record as a strong supporter of athletics. Athletics are an important part of the high school script in the minds of community members. People believe they have to be there and so they are there.

Athletics are built around a compelling, easy-to-follow story. Progressively through a season, young warriors representing the community meet a succession of rivals. Each meeting is itself a small, dramatic, easy to understand tale. Characters face challenges, take action, and either win or lose. These weekly dramas are embedded in the longer drama of the season's progress toward either failure or triumph, reaching a series of culminations in district, regional and state championship games.

This story provides the institutional stability of athletic programs within schools. Boards come and go, administrators come and go, teachers come and go, federal grants come and go, but athletics continue.

Though it's a limited story, it's not a bad one. At their best, athletics are about courage, perseverance, dedication, grace and beauty. A good competitor want an opponent who will allow him to be as good as he can. It's true that the beauty of athletics is corrupted when competitors begin desiring the destruction of their opponents, but educators who think all competition is bad could probably learn quite a lot from generous athletes who have learned to handle public defeat without being crushed.

Unfortunately, when it comes to academic performance, we tell no such compelling story. The prevailing story goes like this: you need to do your homework and be pleasant to the teacher so that you will get good grades. You need good grades to get into a good college. You need to get into a good college so you can get a good job. You need a good job because without it you will be nobody and have nothing. You will be a loser.

A nasty tale, that. It pits kids against one another, encouraging selfishness and turning folks into winners and losers. It's harder to say whether the story is worse for the winners or the losers. Winners tend to believe their main responsibility is to themselves. It's easy for them to begin thinking the world owes them and to think of themselves as members of a privileged caste that has no or few responsibilities to others. After all, the story goes, we get what we deserve. If I have more that's only because I'm better.

And the kids who don't learn as quickly or as deeply or who simply start farther behind--well, they learn their ranking quite soon. Many of them have quit trying before they get into high school. They know that if it is a race, they are going to lose. It is natural to take no interest in a game we can't win. Or even to hate the game and want to destroy it.

We have always had other stories, of course. Here's one:

The world is a better place to live than it once was. We have good food, warm homes, nearly miraculous health care, clean schools, and public libraries. Knowledge that was once scarce is now abundant. Political and religious liberty which were once almost nonexistent are now firmly, if not perfectly, established. All of this was made possible by the struggles and work and sacrifices of millions of people over generations. None of it can be taken for granted, because keeping it and improving it requires steady effort from every new generation. It requires contributions from all of us.

The only way to keep it is to understand it. That's why we have schools.

The most important work of our society is to help the next generation understand our cultural heritage. As you come to understand that cultural heritage, you will find parts of it that you find especially interesting or important. You will find the place where you can be of most help. It might be in any of the arts or sciences, it might focus on practical matters or aesthetic matters, it might involve you in helping with the built environment or in assisting with social services.

But whatever it is, we need every one of you. If you find work that needs to be done, and you prepare yourself to do it well, you will be honoring all those before you who made your life possible, you will be providing for yourself the means of earning a living, and you will be passing on those who come after you a world that is better than the one you found. The community needs you.

There are other stories as well. The important thing is for teachers to realize that their comments about motivations and rationales for school work imply a story, and that if that story does not offer hope and invitation to all their students, and if it does not promote a readiness to serve the larger community, they may be doing more harm than good. The stories we are acting out matter.

Today we face few problems that we lack the means to solve. It helps to remember what we've done already. Our predecessors solved educational problems of a vast scale. Comenius invented textbooks because learning was so rare that even teachers had precious little of it. The masses were illiterate and ignorant. When the bubonic plague decimated Europe, hordes crowded together in churches to pray, unaware of the fleas leaping among them spreading the contagion. The problems we face today are not worse than the problems they faced.

Our main problems today are that our memories are short and our belief that tomorrow can be significantly better is weak. We need stories that invite us to think, from time to time, about where we will be in ten years, one hundred years, and one thousand years.

It may be helpful to think about what James P. Carse, religion professor at New York University, calls "the infinite game." He says "a finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the game." 

Football is a finite game. Gardening is an infinite game. A political campaign is a finite game. A family is an infinite game. A business deal is a finite game. A religion is an infinite game.

Charles Hampden-Turner and Fons Trompenaars built upon Carse's thought. In a finite game, they pointed out, winners exclude losers. In an infinite game, winners teach losers better plays.

In a finite game, the winner takes all. In an infinite game, winning is widely shared.

In a finite game, the players' aims are identical. In an infinite game, the players' aims are diverse.

In a finite game, rules are fixed in advance to guarantee a single winner. In an infinite game, rules are changed along the way by agreement.

In a finite game, energy is focused in short-term, decisive contests. In an infinite game, energy is invested in the long term.

Finite games focus on how they end. Infinite games focus on how they continue.

Good schools, like good communities, good economies and good families, are playing an infinite game. They may include finite games within them, but they ensure that these games don't displace the larger play or corrupt it. 

James Carse ends his book with a statement that bears further reflection: there is but one infinite game.

The story of that one infinite game is the right story for schools to organize their practices around.

Playing the Infinite Game

I have some thoughts about the infinite game and how it should be played. So do you. Here are the basics: it includes everybody, it involves all knowledge, and it includes all of the past and all of the future. That's quite a bit. So where do we start?

We might start with families. Family, says historian Elliott West, is the tool that can help students connect all the disconnections of time and place they face in the modern world. In his speech to the Montana Heritage Project in June, 1998, he said "Families intertwine the chaotic details of every past time and bind them with the present and with us. For those of us interested in how societies have worked, families have always been the center of ordinary human lives. Their greatest power is to implicate you and me in the emotional world of real people who have come and gone, people we will join soon enough."

Fortunately, recommending the study of family history as an animating principle of schools is not a quixotic thing to do. In fact, the evidence suggests that millions already feel this is just what they need and are flocking toward it. Just as people responded to the realities of their sedentary lives in the 1970s by taking up jogging and finding gyms, people today are responding to the feeling of disconnection in today's world by flocking in vast numbers toward family history, which at its best is genuine history but with a personal connection.

Doing family history research is not simply about creating pedigree charts. Rather, it is about understanding the human experience.

Family history research is now second only to gardening as a popular American pastime. This is driven in part by the craving people get for what's missing in their diet but it is also driven by a new technological wonder: the internet.

Through the internet, people are connecting not only with their distant ancestors, re-imagining the worlds they knew and grappling to understand what they faced and how their world grew into our world, they are also connecting with like-minded people around the world. They are forming, of their own free will, ambitions on a massive scale that can only be accomplished by shared effort. "Thousands of users of a program called Family Tree Maker are linking their research into a World Family Tree on the Web," says Stewart Brand. "So far it has tied together seventy-five thousand family trees, a total of fifty million names. The goal, once unthinkable, is to eventually document and link every named human who ever lived."

Every named human who ever lived. Think about that for a moment, or maybe even for an hour.

Through a focus on family history research, students can be drawn to oral history, which involves reading, writing, speaking, listening, summarizing, analyzing, as well as the fundamental work of turning towards elders with interest and compassion. They can be drawn to primary document research, which includes making a research plan, using finding aids, writing letters, evaluating conflicting evidence, and synthesizing original conclusions. They can be drawn to published texts that treat historical periods, specific events, political history, personal experience, and the rest of the human record.

But that's not all. As they join the worldwide effort of others who are trying to understand the world through the work of finding their families, they will find that they can contribute to the world's memory. They can discover what has been lost. They can contribute important information to the shared work.

In doing this work, various Christian sects come keyboard to keyboard with one another. They find Muslims and Jews connected through their modems are also connected through the intertwined stories of their intertwined families. They come to understand to do this work we must, in time, put the world's knowledge online and steadily increase all people's access to it.

They realize that to do this work, we all need to help. This work cannot be done simply by assigning it to institutions. The distributed research and linked computers of millions of searchers will exceed by many orders of magnitude the power of the government's largest super-computers.

That woman in Ireland who is looking for an uncle who was last heard from somewhere in Montana in 1875--how is she to find what happened to him? The answer may lie on a gravestone in that cemetery just up the hill on the windswept prairies. If she had the name and the date on that gravestone, she could find an obituary, and if she had the obituary she might have the name of employers, information about historical events that touched his life. One thing leads to another and to another and, given time, to all things.

But for now there is work to do. The cemetery records, the courthouse records of real estate transactions and marriages, it all needs to be put online. If we are to find every person who has ever lived, then people in each village and town and city need to find everyone who has ever lived there.

While people in Scotland or China are finding your relatives there, you can help them find theirs where you are. Much of this is work that students can do. Much of it is work that grandparents can do. And much of it is work that they can share. Let them start with their families. There is no end to what they will learn.

Schools that decide to act as the catalyst for this work will find support coming from every direction. They will find that students are motivated, teachers revitalized, communities re-engaged. They will, of course, continue other studies and they will still have proms and basketball games. The infinite game, after all, has room for us all with all our interests.

The main difference is that every school will maintain a community archives that contains research done by students and other community members. The archives will be the most important institution in the school, and caring for it and adding to it will be everyone's responsibility. And the work that is done there will not be ephemera, as most school work has been. It will be intended to last forever.

Joined in Time

Some of the work will be in file folders, awaiting the right researcher to take it farther. Some will be in published documents, that hold in place organized bodies of work that have been done. And some will be ready for publication online. Since the work is intended to last forever, it is not done in undue haste.

The collection will not seem grand at first. The first year it might have only fourteen biographical essays done by a senior English class. But fourteen essays is something, if it is kept. In ten years, the value will be more clear. There will be hundreds of documents, and teachers who had shown no interest at the beginning will begin to pay attention. Nearly every student in their classes will be able to find information on their own families. This will provoke further questions.

In twenty years, everyone will understand the value of what is being done. The archive will be quite large and everybody will have a personal interest in some part of it. Community members will come to the school to do their own research alongside students.

In doing the work, they will come to understand more and more of what it has meant and now means to be human. They will see the world from all its perspectives: that of victors, that of the defeated, that of women, that of kings, that of slaves. They will be brought to ponder the way consequences follow actions, not always quickly and not always fairly. They will meditate on justice. They will learn new songs. They will be stirred to compassion.

They learn that every life has its lessons to teach, and they will see that if those lessons are learned, then every life, no matter how hopeless it might have seemed, has its value. Harder to learn, but more important to understand, is that we can help the people in the past. In a mysterious way, they are waiting for us. They need us to fulfill the promise of their own lives.

Elliott West reminded us that "all of us sleep with ghosts. When we invite them into our own day, we learn about the world they knew, and how it grew into ours. But we do something more. We resurrect our humanness."

In fifty years, people will have a hard time imagining a school without an archives. A school without an archives would be, would be-well, a place full of busy work, a place where time was a burden and people watched the clock and waited, a place where nothing that was done was real or permanent, a place where people thought mostly about token rewards and cliques, a place where people were bored and restless and angry-in other words, a place where people wasted the very essence of their lives: time.

Wherever you are, if you listen slowly enough, you might hear now the gentle tolling of a giant bell in a distant commons, calling you home.

It's only a story, but a story already coming true.

The Great Project of Human Knowledge
Building an Online Photo Archives
Starting a School Archives
Family History Resources