Advice to Graduates: Every Wing has a Leading Edge and a Trailing Edge

One of the diciest spectacles we have in education these days is the rush to apply technology to the process.  Our school systems are spending enormous amounts of money to equip students with the latest gadget (these days, it’s a tablet) and make sure they know how to run these things.  Textbook publishers are rushing to put students into e-textbooks, which are great until:

  1. Your open book tests do not allow internet capable devices (mine don’t);
  2. You realise the digital rights management (DRM) doesn’t let you resell the book, which means that you’ve just spent more on the e-textbook then you would have if you had bought and resold the paper one; or
  3. Someone steals the tablet you’ve been issued, DRM following.

A lot of this push comes from Boomer administrators and educators who are a) mercifully retiring and b) in a complete panic over technology in general.  For them, the on/off switch on desktops was a complete mystery, to say nothing about the little dimple at the bottom of their iPhone/iPad.  Much of their push re technology is done without a clear understanding of how it works, which is one reason why it’s an uphill battle to get students to learn how to code (which, in turn, would enhance everyone’s understanding of how computers really work).

Boomers come up with all kinds of buzzwords to hide their ignorance on many points.  One of them is their insistence upon things, people and organisations being “leading edge”.  Once again, this is the mantra of a generation who is scared to brown pants about being left behind.  This has also oozed into the church world.

My first job was in the aerospace industry, designing what you see above, and that the year Star Wars came out.  I had never had much exposure to aircraft outside of flying around in them, although I learned later that my grandfather (right) was a different story altogether.  One of the first revelations was that a) the term “leading edge” refers to the “front” edge of a wing and b) wings have both leading and trailing edges, both of which are important to the flight of the aircraft or missile or whatever.  (I’m still tangentially involved with aerospace people, and you can see how they show leading and trailing edges of wings work here).

Today we’re obsessed with being “leading edge” or “cutting edge”.  But the trailing edge has its place too.  Technology has transformed just about every aspect of productive work (and unproductive work too) but one can have a career in some stuff that would be classified as “trailing edge”.  My family business was decidedly in that group, but we were in the middle of an industry which was (and still is) very advanced in its technology and vital in its product, if not politically correct.  It took me a long time to grasp that it was really OK and, of course, I doubt most manufactured products have examples that are still in their original use after a century or more.  My teaching field (geotechnical engineering) always seems to lag the rest of civil engineering in the application of new techniques, but rare is the structure that does not rest on the foundation.  And the reason for the lag is simple: with the many uncertainties of any earth science, the price of failure (especially in our legal environment) is very high.

For success, we must have a place on the wing, so to speak.  Sometimes that means moving from one edge to another (that’s not uncommon with computer people) but having that place takes more than following the latest trend or parroting the latest buzzword.  It takes planning, long-term planning, and in the short-term emotionalism that characterises American thinking, that’s not easy to break away from the crowd and do.

The current decline of the personal computer is well-known.  One ministry friend noted that content generators prefer the PC while content consumers go for the tablets.  That’s true, so the question is this: will you be a generator, or simply a consumer?  Long-term success will be difficult if all you do is find yourself in the latter mode.  But unfortunately the “gee-whiz” approach we take to science and technology encourages that, and it’s a recipe for failure.

We can be on the leading edge, we can be on the trailing edge, or somewhere between, but the key is that we take flight.  As was noted at the beginning of the greatest adventure in history:

No sooner had Jesus said this than he was caught up before their eyes, and a cloud received him from their sight. While they were still gazing up into the heavens, as he went, suddenly two men, clothed in white, stood beside them, And said: “Men of Galilee, why are you standing here looking up* into the heavens? This very Jesus, who has been taken from you into the heavens, will come in the very way in which you have seen him go into the heavens.” Then the Apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called Olivet, which is about three-quarters of a mile from the city. (Acts 1:9-12)

*I would have said “looking stupid” but the men (really angels) were more charitable than I would have been.

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