There is something reassuring about the end of vacation. Returning to school, returning to work are normal parts of life. Like the changing of the seasons, the end of one period and the beginning of another has both the nostalgia for what was and the excitement of what is to be.
We celebrate normalcy. We are secure when we know that there is a linear progression such as from 1 to 2 to 3, from A to B to C, from July to August to September. All of these certainties are fundamental building blocks in our education and in our lives. They are the knowns which allow us to reach out to the unknowns. Without the knowns, exploring the unknowns would be risky. Without the knowns, we would feel overwhelmed with insecurity.
But what happens when our knowns come into question? What happens when the school we once felt secure in no longer provides the safety net we always counted on? What happens when the job we thought was ours disappears? The company we counted on to work for no longer exists? The country we were proud of exhibits moral decline?
I have always been fascinated by the German mathematician Georg Cantor (1845-1918) who studied briefly in Zurich. The one part of his work that intrigues me, and that I think I understand, deals with space. How much space is there between two points? We can measure the distance easily and normally with a ruler. But, if we begin with a simple measurement, reducing the size of the space in half each time, we come up with a measurement that just continues. Half of one meter is 50 centimeters. Half of 50 centimeters is… and so on. Cantor, who spent much of his life in asylums, came up with the notion of an infinity of infinities. There is always a space between two points. There is no end to the halving.
Cantor was called a “scientific charlatan,” “renegade,” and “corruptor of youth.” All of this because his mathematical theories went against what was accepted at the time. Today, for example, I am sure that in elementary science courses descriptions of atoms and molecules are vastly different from what I was taught. Quantum theory has challenged, if not overcome, traditional scientific presumptions.
What is the time gap between what is generally accepted as known and the acceptance of something different? How long did it take before it was generally accepted that the earth and the other planets revolve around the sun? How long before the abnormal becomes normal and the once-normal becomes dismissed?
If we favour normalcy, then any change is threatening. But what would happen if we saw change as the normal? The weather cycles may change because of global warming. Our jobs may change because technology has made our skills obsolete. Our country’s geopolitical situation may change because of decisions by our leaders. As Paul Kennedy wrote, the rise and fall of empires is part of cycles that we have difficulty grasping and accepting, just as Karl Marx wrote about the rise and fall of capitalism. In other words, there may even be a certain normalcy in change.
The return to school and the return to work after vacation are fundamental to our senses of time. If we extrapolated beyond linear time, however, we would uncover the possibilities that change could bring. The forces of nostalgia are very powerful. The forces against change are always there. But change is always there as well. How to balance those forces?