“First electricity, now telephones. Sometimes I feel as if I were living in an H.G. Wells novel. The young are all so calm about change, aren’t they?”
– The Right Honourable Violet Crawley, Countess of Grantham
The success of the television drama, “Downton Abbey,” can be attributed to the following phenomena:
(1) No one can resist a show with so much drama, intrigue, and romance, whether it’s “Gossip Girl” or “Downton Abbey”–the latter, I argue (with a bit of cheek, of course), only made respectable by its Edwardian costumes and British accents.
(2) No one can resist a show that so deftly characterizes the cultural shifts of the beginning of the 20th century, shifts that obviously resonate with today’s viewers, an audience wrestling with dizzying technological changes; social, political, and financial maelstroms; and war overseas.
The characters’ reactions to technological advances are responsible for much of the humor of the show: the Dowager Countess’ experiences with electricity and the swivel chair, the household’s first encounters with the telephone, the butler Carson suspiciously approaching the maid Gwen’s typewriter as if it were a bomb. However humorously change is portrayed, however, change is also sobering: Survival depends on it.
“Downton Abbey” begins with the sinking of the Titanic–April 15th, 1912, a century ago. The Titanic was thought to be unsinkable. People had unquestionable faith in its prospects for a successful transatlantic crossing just as they had faith in much of modern progress.
Its surprising failure in the first episode augurs a series of changes that shape the characters’ lives. Here we are, 100 years later, confronting the sinking of our own Titanics. As we look back on the last 100 years, in what did we once have unquestionable faith? How is change shaping us?
In education, technological change has altered the way we do things significantly. Students no longer sit in rows for lengthy stretches time. Instead, new tools allow students to construct and demonstrate their learning rather than passively receive it. “A telephone is not a toy, but a useful and valuable tool,” Carson says as he shoos the staff away from the household’s latest device. As our schools continue to facilitate the sharing of instructional materials over the Internet, we’re creating more opportunities for students to learn anytime, anywhere. Students can take more ownership over how and when they learn best.
In recent years, we’ve been hearing more and more about a new concept: “21st Century Learning.” The Partnership for 21st Century Skills (www.p21.org) has created an extensive framework outlining the essential skills students will need in the 21st century. In addition to relevant content knowledge like global awareness and digital literacy, the framework includes personal characteristics like creativity, adaptability, and resilience, traits that will be more valuable for our students than we first imagined 50 years ago when curriculum was considered a fixed body of knowledge to be transmitted from teacher or textbook to the students. “The top 10 in-demand jobs in the future don’t exist today,” says former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley in his book The Jobs Revolution: Changing How America Works, “We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented, in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.” Students will need to adapt; they will need to teach themselves; they will need to create and innovate.
Sybil’s maid Gwen reminded me of this as I watched her lift herself out of life as a servant to life as a secretary. She takes a correspondence typing course and applies for a job with the telephone installer whose business is expanding so quickly he can’t find enough qualified employees. The applicants are either too old to change, he says, or too inexperienced. Are we helping our students acquire Gwen’s characteristics? Are we encouraging them to develop a habit of optimistic adaptability that will ensure their success in the future? What was necessary 100 years ago–at least in my favorite TV show–seems to be necessary today.
Recent psychological studies have focused on resilience as a predictor of student success rather than any sort of innate talent. The word derives from the Latin, resilre, meaning “to spring back” or “to rebound.” We often speak of “coping with change,” but the word “resilience” is quite different in pitch from the word “coping.” Resilience connotes an ability to integrate change into one’s being and respond with a spring and a bounce–with an optimism and a jauntiness that absorbs the shocks of change.
The word “cope” has a weakening feeling to it. Coping is adequate, but it sinks when you touch it. Coping erodes.
Resilience lifts. Resilient is lively and confident. Resilience is Edith driving the rollicking tractor; the bounce in Anna’s hair when she first uses a curling iron; Sybil’s buoyant smile when she cooks her first cake.
In a conversation with Mrs. Hughes, the head housekeeper, about life paths she didn’t take, Carson shares this wise insight:
“Life’s altered you as it’s altered me. And what would be the point of living if we didn’t let life change us?”