To The Moon And Back

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.


Categories: Culture

6 replies

  1. On your point about the crisis in our schools – President Obama today compared Apollo 11’s successful mission to his goal of the United States having the highest college graduation rates in the world by 2020. To me, the goal of more college graduates seems easier than putting another person on the moon or sending someone to Mars.

  2. I appreciate your highlighting the role that imagination can play in addressing “our broken and splintered culture.” Last week, I had a talk with a local pastor about emerging visions among educationalists for school reform. During our conversation, he shared his belief that some thinkers are too idealistic, good teachers are rarer than diamonds, and better schools would require too drastic changes.

    I agreed with his last two points, but at the same time understand that imagination will allow us to re-envision our current approach to education.

    According to Roland Barthes, “when cultural myths become naturalized over time and become that which is taken for granted, they serve a legitimating role” (Walton, 2009). Moving forward requires understanding how the taken granted is not natural, and then imagining something different.

  3. President Obama has set the goal of having the highest college graduation rates in the world by 2020……this seems to be a goal that does not address the problem that K-12 schools are broken. The US has some of the premier colleges in the world, the problem is the broken K-12 system that feeds the universities. I was lucky enough to complete my childhood education in a different country, an education that allows all college entrants to apply for and begin studying their major from day 1 in college. A system that then allows for a full year internship for all college students related to their major.
    Obama may well be successful in the stated goal relating to college graduates, but that won’t fix the K-12 system.

  4. I think you are on the mark. We certainly don’t see the leadership coming forward at the national level. I wish that I followed it all better, but my hope that Obama might be the person to begin to heal the land is slipping away somewhat. Where is our collective spine…we have lost that plumb line as a culture. …a real subject for prayer!

  5. has anyone noticed that since the presidential election of 2008 there hasn’t been much passed in congress? it’s like the country voted against bush and for obama, but there hasn’t been much movement since then. there’s a lot of talk about health care and climate change policy, but obama is right: there’s a real deadlock in washington d.c. you have to wonder what that means and where the USA is headed.

    on the other hand, obama is still seen by many as a world leader and someone who has been able to show by example what strong leadership can mean. others feel that he has been a success outside of the united states but not so much at home.

    does anyone have any thoughts about this?

  6. The key to enhancing our nations college graduate numbers is by targeting young school children. By reaching out to communities and educating children and their families about a child options for the future encourages students to attend college. Many families are concerned with the rising costs of a college education, however there are various types of grants, loans, scholarships and financial aid available for any person to attend college.


    Editor, – A Directory of Colleges in Michigan

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