Robert J. Kingston, RIP

RIP Bob Kingston, 1929-2016.

Bob KingstonA longtime colleague — one of my teachers in the craft and science of framing public issues — has passed over the weekend.

He was a giant in the world in which I work. I treasure the many projects we worked on together — him gently yet forcefully guiding a young man into understanding what “issue framing” is and might be. He reviewed almost all of my early work with the Kettering Foundation. He was a formative influence in my understanding of how democracy can best work as it should.

Exacting yet gracious and cordial, receiving a memo from Bob always necessitated deep thought, in trying to implement the excellent corrections they invariably conveyed. But it was when I could convince him to get out his colored pen and actually edit my text when I was the most grateful. His brilliance in turning tepid concepts into razors of insight was profound. His marks seemed to magically make my prose, and therefore my thinking, better.

A fuller memorial is posted at the Kettering Foundation’s page. In it, Kettering’s president, David Mathews, says, “Bob Kingston was one of the primary architects of the modern Kettering Foundation. He is renowned for his role as editor of the Kettering Review. To say that he is irreplaceable is an understatement. All of his colleagues and associates at the foundation will sorely miss him.”

I among them.

Wolves, Rivers, Hindsight, and the "Butterfly Effect"

There is a video that is currently being shared on social media by a number of people I know. It is about the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone and the wide-ranging effects this “keystone species” had on the environment. A keystone species is a top-of-food-chain creature whose presence or absence has wide-ranging impacts. In the case of wolves, which had been hunted and eradicated, their reintroduction managed to stabilize elk population and a number of other species as well. Even more, vegetation was affected through secondary means. Indeed, the narration in the video says even “the river adapted” to the reintroduction (fewer grazing animals => less deforestation near rivers => strengthened river banks).

All this is terrific news. But there is a way that this gets reported that gives me pause. The description of the causal loops are presented as if all this was preordained. As if it was obvious that the rivers would strengthen their banks if only there were wolves.

I wonder if the planners really knew that would happen, or whether it is an after-the-fact understanding. Large system responses can be like that: in hindsight it seems obvious. But that is can give the dangerous illusion that we can predict the future if only we are smart enough.

So we get system “flow diagrams” like the one below, which seem at once reasonable and like a Rube Goldberg device:

Click for full size
Click for full size!

The point about some of these large-system effects (eg, the “butterfly effect,” an idea popularized by Edward Lorenz, where the beatings of some butterfly’s wings in one place causes a windstorm elsewhere) is that they are unpredictable ahead of time. We know there are likely to be effects, but cannot say for certain what they will be.

It is tempting for hindsight to make us feel smug when looking at our forebears. They should have known, it is easy to think to ourselves. But the nature of such large, open systems as that this is not always the case. It is impossible to know and account for all initial conditions.

Complementary Production and the Village of Hawk Creek

The story of Tom Newman and the Village of Hawk Creek gives a good example of “complementary production” (the kind I was trying to describe here).

There is a man, Tom Newman, in Cleveland, Tennessee who has spent years slowly gathering five frontier log cabins to his property and turning it into a kind of museum:

Over a period of more than 40 years, Newman purchased five log cabins, carefully taking each one apart, moving them to his property and meticulously putting them back together again.

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Photo William Wright

Not only is he interested in capturing and preserving the life of colonists on the frontier of Tennessee, Newman said he wants to share a message with today’s youth.

“I want to show young people the skills and the hard work that it took the early settlers to build their house, to build their home,” Newman said. “I took those logs down, moved them in here and put them back up. That’s hard work! But that’s nothing compared to what those pioneers had to live with. I think young people need to know a little bit about that, if they can. This land was built on hard work.”

The default is to think of “schools” as being in charge of schooling students. (In fact we even call them “learners.”) If instead we think of “education of youth,” and not “schooling,” as a multifaceted and community-wide challenge, that will necessarily involve a wide array of actors, then possibilities open up. You will then look for solutions that involve more than just institutions (“schools”) and professionals (“educators” and administrators) and that are likely to involve complementary actions. Hawk Creek is one such part of a community response to the challenge.

Note that Newman is doing this thing because he is interested, but he is importantly connecting with others in the community and he sees it as an educational resource. The people of Cleveland, TN have an educational resource now that they did not have. Institutions called “schools” can now imagine new ways to, potentially, “teach” history.