Byron's Babbles

The Nuanced Context Of The Great Society

Posted in Amity Shlaes, Calvin Coolidge, Great Society, Leadership, Lyndon B Johnson, Reflection by Dr. Byron L. Ernest on March 5, 2020

The Great Society: A New HistoryThe Great Society: A New History by Amity Shlaes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a well written and researched book. The book, for me, was written in such a way that lets the reader determine her/his own views on the subject. I spent a great deal of time pondering and reflecting on the content of the book. Having been a child during the Great Society era, I agree with the fact that the federal government, during this era, redefined its role in the arts, on media (television and radio), and public schools. As, Shlaes taught us, “Washington left no area untouched” (p. 6). In turn, the federal government became intrusive in the 1960s. The lesson learned was that the hypocrisy of how the middle class and the poor were treated began to limit our ability to innovate. One of the biggest lessons we should take from this book and the 1960s and 1970s is our need to find ways to truly evaluate programs, which we still do not have. Any time there are programs initiated by government we need to be able to answer whether the programs were worth and cost and if they achieved what was promised. This made me think of another of Shlaes great books, Coolidge, where we learned of Coolidge’s disdain for using legislation to experiment. In my blog post Remember Freedom Is Yours Until You Give It Up: https://byronernest.blog/2020/01/25/r… I spoke of how Harry Truman always spoke of the nuances of leadership, and the Great Society must be studied, which Shlaes did, in the nuanced context of the relationship of the Vietnam War, poverty, and civil rights.

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Serendipity Mattered

This week while continuing to read Great Society: A New History by one of my favorite authors, Amity Shlaes, I found the shortest sentence in the book: “Serendipity mattered” (p. 188). Serendipity has always been an intriguing word to me that I have had trouble understanding because I here it being used in different ways. But when used in the context of Shlaes book, in a two word sentence it made perfect sense. The sentence “Serendipity mattered” really drove home the point she was trying to make and really made the lightbulbs come on for me.

In other words, there needs to be serendipity for innovation to occur. So what is serendipity? As I said earlier, I have trouble understanding it fully, but I know that when conditions are right for it, great things happen. Serendipity is said to happen by simple chance. An opportunity that comes about by a chance occurrence. Therefore, we must create the opportunities for these occurrences. This was the point that Shlaes was making in the book. The Fairchild Semiconductor company realized they needed innovation. They also realized that looseness of hierarchy drove innovation. Thus, “Serendipity mattered.” It is also why we need to beware of the current tides toward any of the Great Society’s socialistic tendencies. This will stifle the serendipity that is so needed.

I touched on serendipity in my blog post Alternative Truths back in 2017, but only to say that we need to be intentional to create space for serendipity to occur. Therefore, I needed to study a little more. Research led me to find that our use of the word serendipity comes from The Three Princes of Serendip. The musician and poet, Amir Khusrau wrote this Persian tale in 1302. The tale is about King Jafer and his three sons. He wants them to have the best education in the kingdom. The King believed that great book learning needed to be combined with a real world context. Wow, I preach that all the time! In fact, I wrote a book, The Hand In The Back Of The Room, about it!

Anyway, the king gave each of the boys a horse and told them to go discover. The boys relished and took advantage of this experience. They learned from being on a journey of taking in real world experiences. Then in 1754, Horace Walpole coined the word serendipity in a letter. He described serendipity, by referring to the tale of the three princes, as making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of. He was excited about this word because there was no word to describe the discovery of something you are not looking for. It was really accidental sagacity.

Then comes the question, how do we create space for serendipity to happen. It probably won’t work to get everyone a horse, but I’m certainly up for it. Think about all the great inventions and innovations that have happened by accident. We need to remember in all this that creation precedes innovation. We need to provide ourselves and others varied routines and time for serendipitous moments to occur. It is why the story of the king sending the princes on a horseback adventure is so important. They’re heads were clear and they were just observing. Think about it; it’s why just taking a walk to clear your brain can bring creative thoughts and solutions. I do this a lot when facilitating teacher leader gatherings. I will tell them to split into groups and take a walk and discuss… They always come back refreshed and with great thoughts and ideas.

Leaders, including political leaders, need to recognize the important role serendipity plays in creativity, innovation, and even relationship building. Interestingly, in my research I found having lunch together as a strategy for encouraging serendipity. I blogged about having lunch together in Let’s Have Lunch Together, but not from the angle of serendipity.

We need to start looking for more serendipity to happen and create space for it. We might not be looking for something specific, but we need to be tuned into a channel of infinite possibilities. Think about it; this blog post was inspired by a two word sentence. It must have been serendipity!