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The Past

As the summer sets and a new academic year shows its first rosy glow—oh, if only that metaphor were true—I prepare my syllabus for the first course in the architectural history sequence. For the forty-fourth time. Shit.

mirror

These days, I’ve thought much about the past; it is my job, after all. But this year is compounded with the department’s centennial, an opportunity to test my thesis that we have, during my tenure at least, always been: 1) of the past, 2) in the present, and 3) about the future.

Each year since I began teaching in 1971 has been unlike the one before. Sometimes the change has been cautious, slow, like watching the hands of a clock and knowing that they’ve moved by not being able to say just when or by how much. At other times, the change has been dramatic, drastic, volcanic: violent earthquake, rather than continental drift. Like the year we shifted from the quarter system to semesters. This place has rarely held on to anything out of habit or (dare I invoke the “T” word?) tradition. In five-year chunks, even our students must sense these changes and (I hope) feel they’ve been part of something larger than themselves. I do. I have to.

Since it was published in 1986, I have read (or tried to read) Finite and Infinite Games, a New Age-y book by James Carse. My appreciation for its ideas has grown exponentially since a first encounter in the late ’80s, and now I keep a hardback copy at bedside for handy reference. Chapter 17 is a frequent stop, since its subject is the past and our relation to it. Because of what I do and (particularly this year) when I’m doing it, exploration of that relationship has been an exercise ripe with meaning.

My Deist inclinations often take me to a view of history as cyclic, a clockwork universe where the past repeats itself—or, at least, regurgitates for further rumination. Author Carse offers an interesting twist to the mix, but telling you about that requires a little back story.

The proposition of Finite and Infinite Games is that our lives consist of multiple overlapping games, each with its onset, rules, players, and outcome. I, for example, am a teacher, guiding a class through a body of knowledge and testing their ability to both learn and apply that new knowledge. I play (with varying degrees of enthusiasm, I should add) in several such finite games simultaneously: as teacher, fan, voter, scholar, curator, husband, citizen. In addition, Carse tells his reader that there is also an infinite game—just one—which began before we were born and will continue after our passing from the scene. Its rules, however, are not designed to bring the game to an end and determine one or more “winners”, but rather to change with the tides of time and guarantee that all are able to play and to extend the playing time indefinitely; indeed beyond my own time on Earth. This single infinite games is life, and our relation with the past is key to the way me play.

Finite players regard the past as past. Were it not, another player might be able to use the element of surprise to shift the balance of power and allow another to win. To avoid this possibility—to avoid surprise—players are trained to understand the past as complete and incapable of affecting the course of play.

Infinite players, on the other hand, regard the past as incomplete. They not only anticipate surprise, they hope for it, and are educated to prepare themselves for dramatic, unpredictable circumstance in the course of play. In Carse’s words

To be prepared against surprise is to be trained. To be prepared for surprise is to be educated.

Education discovers an increasing richness in the past, because it sees what is unfinished there. Training regards the past as finished and the future as to be finished. Education leads toward a continuing self-discovery; training toward a final self-definition.

Training repeats a completed past in the future. Education continues an unfinished past into the future.

These have become and will continue to be the watchwords of my work. So please remind me of that from time to time.


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