In the early 1920s, the playwright, George Bernard Shaw, wrote a now largely forgotten play, Back to Methuselah, which spans 35,000 years, from pre-history to the distant future. As an allegorical perspective on government and human nature, it combines elements of science (longevity and senescence) with a rather wistful hope for a better society. By almost any measure, it was a lesser work by an acclaimed and successful writer, doomed to mere footnote status in even the most passionate literary hagiography.
The play, or at least a single line from the play, was rescued from oblivion by a single oratorical reference, perhaps due to speechwriter Ted Sorensen's erudition. On June 28, 1963, then President John Kennedy addressed the Irish Dáil and paraphrased a line from the play, remarking,
George Bernard Shaw, speaking as an Irishman, summed up an approach to life: Other people, he said "see things and . . . say 'Why?' . . . But I dream things that never were-- and I say: 'Why not?'"
It is that quality of the Irish--that remarkable combination of hope, confidence and imagination—that is needed more than ever today. The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics, whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were, and ask why not.
Given that reference and its subsequent repetition, the line is almost universally associated not with Shaw, but with the former President and his brother, Robert Kennedy. C'est la vie; fame in all forms is such a fleeting and elusive chimera. For literary and cultural completeness, let me note that the actual line in the play is spoken by the Serpent to Eve in the Garden of Eden: "You see things; and you say 'Why?' But I dream things that never were; and I say 'Why not?"
The Winds of Change Are Blowing
The poignancy and relevance of Shaw's line and Kennedy's remarks have never been timelier. These are, to use another literary reference, times that try the souls of us all. Beset by global change, continuing economic malaise and national ennui, individuals and institutions alike are struggling to chart safe passage to the future. It is no less true of us who live in the sometimes cloistered halls of academia.
Today, the social compact between research universities (particularly public ones) is being renegotiated in deep and profound ways. Expectations for higher education are shifting, driven by economic exigencies, societal needs and technological change. A 21st century instance of the age-old educational question – the balance of the liberal arts and practical skills – is being debated anew. Economic development, applied research and development partnerships and the need for lifelong skills refresh are being pursued with renewed vigor. Finally, federal funding for basic research is at a decadal low in constant dollars, trapped by the vicissitudes of politics and sequestration, and threatening the innovation engine that that the foresight of Vannevar Bush stoked over sixty years ago.
The Future Is Bright, But Different
This is a time of questions. How do we collaboratively address societal challenges in education, the environment, quality of life, and health care? How do we more rapidly translate research insights into economic and social benefit? How do we help our citizens remain economically successful in a world of global competitors? How do we sustain an academic scholarship and research enterprise than has long been the envy of the world? How do we shape the future to our mutual benefit?
I do not know what the future holds, but I have a deep and abiding faith in the fundamental strength of the U.S. higher education system and its ability to craft a vibrant and mutually beneficial future. From the annealing, a new model will emerge, just as it has in each previous period of change. Indeed, the history of higher education is not one of stasis, but of punctuated equilibrium, with change triggered by visionary response to societal needs.
Yes, we face challenges, but the future can be bright. Shaw and Kennedy were right:
The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics, whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were, and ask why not.
We must reach into the future of our dreamsand pull a bit of it back to the reality of thehere and now.Now is the time to dream of things that never were and ask, why not?