This is what's next

C. Morgan Grefe, Ph.D.

Executive Director, Rhode Island Historical Society

What’s next? What’s next has never been the essential question for me as a historian. Most of my intellectual life has been taken up with questions like “Why did thus and such happen when and how it did?” or “How did that influence what came after?”

But, now that I think about it, perhaps the discipline of history does make me uniquely poised to think about the question of what’s coming next because, well, next is merely a moment in time ... and those moments are the stuff of history.

To use the historian’s toolbox when thinking about the prompt “This is what’s next,” I need to start with the trials of today. While there are challenges that might seem unique to modern-day Rhode Island, in fact, many of them (unemployment, unequal access to educational resources and health care, fear of the “other,” mistrust of authority, and climate change, to name just a few) have roots far back into previous centuries, and have not yet been solved by the tried and true techniques of the last century or earlier.

So, to me, what’s next might be realizing that some of the things we perceive as crises are actually symptoms, and that the true challenge in front of us is the identification of the real problems and the causes of those.

We can certainly see this in action in current philanthropic thought. When we look at people in their mid-20s and assess that they are not prepared for 21st-century jobs, you’ll often hear about the need to create more post-secondary programs to train them. While that might be helpful, we now know that the crucial investment would actually be in early childhood education, making sure there is access to school, but also that those schools are educating children to be creative problem solvers (I highly recommend disciplines like art and history for this, by the way) who know how to learn new skills quickly and are enticed by a new task rather than repelled by it.

To that end, I think adaptive thinking is next, and for that matter, it will always be.

I believe what’s next is realizing that if there’s anything we learn from the past it is that each problem is unique and therefore requires a unique response. No longer will we say that we need more jobs, so we must bring back the same exact companies. What worked in a different era is rarely the answer. Rather we should be asking: What conditions existed that made people of earlier generations curious? What made them look for solutions to the problems they faced?

We in Rhode Island should feel the power of this question acutely because we were such a locus of innovation and invention. Why? Was it our original, experimental philosophy? Was it – despite the human failings of greed that led to profound exploitation in the forms of enslavement – our expressed attention to active tolerance of difference? There are many opinions about why this was the case, because that’s what historians do: we don’t recite facts, but rather organize events to make fact-based arguments about their causes, meaning, and import.

Thoughtful inquiry is not partisan; it’s not sexist; it’s not race-based. It’s committing to a process that says “Sure, you can keep putting the same bandage on the same cut that doesn’t stop bleeding, or you can figure out why it’s still bleeding.” The bandaging process, I can assure you, will get tiresome and yield limited response, but it will also require little effort or creativity. The investigation will be harder, and it might be a little painful for a while, but once the bleeding stops, you’ll be very happy you took the time to find the reason.

Curiosity, then, is what’s next. Problem-solving skills must be next. Asking better questions about ourselves, our past, and our communities has to be before us.

The truth, they say, shall set you free, and the only way to get to the truth is through scrutiny.

So what’s next? Great question! What do you think?
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