If the exhibit at Baylor’s Mayborn Museum had it right, none of Leonardo’s flying machines actually worked. The notebooks in which he sketched them were untidy, disorganized to the point of apparent recklessness. Sometimes he was so far off in terms of scale or proportion that one has to wonder what he was thinking. To cite but one example: how could a parachute too heavy to carry up a hill ever be tested?
Yet Leonard’s breathtaking powers of invention and visual expression continue to inspire us. Such powers set the standard. In a way, they guarantee their own success, if not in their time, then certainly in the time that follows. If we take the long view, Leonardo’s inventions did in fact work. All of his flying machines flew. His vision would not let us be satisfied with anything less. We created to the standards he helped to set, and that’s one of the big reasons we remember him with gratitude, though I’m confident he was a pain in the neck to be around most of the time. Never content, always off in another galaxy, never facing facts.
If one thinks of Leonardo’s vision as a kind of song, a music that challenges us to shed our mannered attention to the grinding and broken processes of our wonderless calculations, it is a music that may well shake us out of our grim and measured comfort zones.
He stood among a crowd at Dromahair;
His heart hung all upon a silken dress,
And he had known at last some tenderness,
Before earth took him to her stony care;
But when a man poured fish into a pile,
It seemed they raised their little silver heads,
And sang what gold morning or evening sheds
Upon a woven world-forgotten isle
Where people love beside the ravelled seas;
That Time can never mar a lover’s vows
Under that woven changeless roof of boughs:
The singing shook him out of his new ease.
In “The Man Who Dreamed of Faeryland,” Yeats reflects on the hazards of vision. Sentimental? Only if the emotion is out of proportion to its object. And who is to make such a judgment? Is a cabinet of wonders or a rag doll a waste of time? Are all matters of consequence obviously so?
You see where this is going. Stubborn visionary optimism can seem pretty naive, even dangerously so. Perhaps it is both naive and dangerous, some of the time. But I will say that the better part of our highest accomplishments as a species has been driven by stubborn visionary optimism, insistent hopefulness of Engelbartian proportions. Half measures and incrementalism just don’t seem to get us very far, certainly not when it comes to education. The “grammar of school” is simply too vigorous and resilient.
What am I advocating? Nothing in particular beyond a commitment to the highest hopes and grandest ambitions. Within my lifetime I have seen things you people wouldn’t believe: if not quite C-Beams glittering off the Tannhauser Gate, then certainly wonders on a scale nearly as large. I type these words and send them to you in a blog-shaped bottle upon a sea of articulate connections that depends on daily miracles born of technological innovation. Many of those miracles need tending. Probably not all of them are sustainable, at least not in their present form. But I am grateful to live among them now and to be part of the effort to understand and use them in the central activity of any civilization: the transmission of culture, and the tools to modify that culture and innovate within it, through education.
Whatever we call this age we live in–the information age, the computer age, the network age–I think we do live in a great age, with the chance to be part of a world-changing moment. We may be forced in the circumstances of our various lives to work on smaller scales, but even a modest contribution may change the world if one is inspired by the vision of that possibility.
Sometimes in the middle of reading Paradise Lost or The Faerie Queene, or after we’ve watched Citizen Kane or Fast, Cheap & Out of Control together, my students will turn to me and voice their incredulity that a human being actually made that thing, imagined it and realized it in conversation and collaboration with others, to be sure, but nevertheless in a way that only they could do, and that no one else would have dared. Sometimes, overcome with wonder myself at the vast accomplishment of these artists, I can do little more than shake my head and say, slowly, “You know, there are extraordinary people on this planet. You’ve just seen something of what our species at its best can do.” And though I know these marvelous information and communication technologies we live with every day are fraught sixteen ways from Sunday, I believe they are also a kind of poem we have written together, a film we have made together, a medium that has enabled what Clay Shirky identifies as “the largest increase in expressive capability in the history of the human race” (Here Comes Everybody). That increase happened because we wanted it to, because we have not yet found the boundaries of our ambitions for connection and expression. I have high hopes for the results of this increase in expressive capability, not because I am a techno-utopian (or any kind of utopian, for that matter), but because of what I have learned and will continue to teach of the great expressive accomplishments, in every discipline and domain, of humanity’s history.
I believe I am called to such hopefulness, though there are many days that call sounds faint or ridiculous. You may have a word other than “vocation” for your sense of your own answerability to this moment. Either way, a great age beckons, and I’m glad we can answer together.