I find myself imagining the hundreds of thousands of scientists, engineers, managers, office personnel, and executives it took to put two men on the moon. That was forty years ago today, July 20, 1969. And then the millions of people around the country who watched in rapt attention that evening — quite an extraordinary event.
We were dazzled and moved and proud.
But as I ponder the symbolic importance of that moment in history, the whole thing seems quite mysterious to me. Not technically mysterious, to be sure, because clearly we have accomplished things more dazzling since that time.
But culturally mysterious. I find myself marveling at the singleness of purpose. I find myself almost in disbelief that the best minds in government, our universities, the world of manufacturing and business could actually come together for such a common goal.
We were the Davids in the business of space travel at the time. The Soviets were the Goliaths. I marvel that we could actually have that much collective confidence to take on this giant challenge. That’s the mystery in all of this. This sense of common purpose.
But, then, just at that time, “something happened,” as the novelist Joseph Heller said. There were seismic shifts going on in the cultural plates beneath our feet. Vietnam happened. The sexual revolution, as it was called, happened. The profound challenge to all authority and all tradition happened.
We lost a sense of common purpose as a nation. We lost our innocence. We lost our optimism, our confidence, our imagination.
As early as 1961, the prescient political theorist Hannah Arendt said that “we have ceased to live in a common world where the words we have in common possess an unquestionable meaningfulness.” We lost a common language, a common culture. Perhaps the moon shot was the last shot we had at such extensive common effort. Never again, perhaps.
I have little opinion whether further space exploration is necessary or good. We need leaders to guide us whether this is so. I suspect not. But what I do believe is that we have massive problems that need fixing, and I ponder this morning whether we have the common will required to tackle such enormous tasks that are on our plate.
Why, for example, should the crisis in our schools seem so intractable? In 1983 we were sternly warned of the consequences of this pervasive failure in a great study called A Nation at Risk: The Imperative For Educational Reform. Why have we not gathered together our best resources, leaders from business and politics and our universities, to fix our schools? We are at risk in ways easily as important as the threat from Soviet space supremacy.
In light of the moon shot, I have been thinking this about our schools and so many other problems: This is not a problem of resources or talent. It is a problem of culture. And how do we fix culture? What kind of leaders do we need to give us a common purpose, to marshal our best energies toward solving some of the world’s great challenges?
This culture thing will take real leadership, a new kind of leadership for our time.
And here is my further question: Are we preparing these kinds of leaders in our universities, leaders who understand our broken and splintered culture, leaders who understand the power of the imagination to bring us together to tackle the huge tasks ahead?
Shouldn’t this be the central task of the university of our day?
Let me know what you think.