I’ve been thinking about change agents ever since Steve Jobs’ passing took us all back to that Stanford university commencement address – and death. And there’s been a lot of that around lately; Jobs himself, Bert Jansch the guitarist who persuaded me to try a little bit harder (just because, once or twice, I sat a few feet away from him and feasted on his incredible playing), and in my own professional field I have just been made aware of the death of Donn Byrne.
Who? I hear the younger readers of this blog ask (I’ll come back to age, if I may, a bit later). Well Donn Byrne was an ELT writer and in two particular books Teaching Oral English and Teaching Writing Skills, he set a standard for writing about teaching methodology which it is hard to beat. You might not, now, agree with his way of doing things, his view of teaching, but his descriptions of pedagogic practices are clear, helpful and steeped in the reality of the classroom.
Does his death (or the other deaths we’ve heard about recently) change things or make way for the new as Steve Jobs suggested? Well that depends on whether the person who died was standing in the way of others, blocking their path. Perhaps, we might agree, older people should move aside, alive or dead, to make way for younger change agents. Because we do need agents like that – people who (like Bert Jansch for me) make us try a little bit harder, think a little bit more radically, try something new. And by the way, older people are pretty wary of youth in that sense, for as Gina Gershon says in the film Showgirls (no I haven’t seen it; I read this in a newspaper), “there’s always someone younger and hungrier coming down the stairs behind you!”.
So I wonder: does change have to come from young people? Or rather does it usually come from younger people? In a recent event at London’s Festival Hall 87-year-old ex US president Jimmy Carter was, by all accounts, on sparkling, energetic and intelligent form. Would he still be – is he – a change agent?
And who are the change agents for us anyway? The people we admire (why do we admire people?), the people we love? The prophets shining with zeal? People who tell us things which amaze and enthrall us? Or maybe the ones who get us all mad and disagreeing, challenge us, make us uncomfortable about things we thought we knew.
I think (despite, myself, being a slave, in his lifetime, to Steve Jobs and everything he made – and he saw that is was good!), that he may not be right. Death is not necessarily a great change agent except in the sense that it creates space for the people still alive – and can make us very very sad. Change agents are the living, maybe young, possibly old, maybe inspirational, maybe convincing by example, maybe just plain ‘God how can she/he say things like that, I mean it’s just WRONG….isn’t it?!!!!
In my case, thinking back over the years, I’ve been entranced, provoked and enriched by change agents in folk clubs, concert halls, books, classrooms and even conferences, but I’m not sure that I can describe what a typical change agent is.