UNPACKING THE BACKPACK – Progress isn’t always the goal

“There has been lots of progress in my lifetime, but I’m afraid it’s headed in the wrong direction,” said Ogden Nash on April 4, 1959 in The New Yorker. “Progress may have been all right once, but it’s gone on too long.”

I’ve been thitnking about those poetic and prophetic words lately as I consider the evolving nature of contemporary society. As beloved teen movie hero Ferris Bueller once wisely noted, “Life moves pretty fast; if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you might miss it.” Life does, in fact, move quickly, growing and changing, usually for the better. Yet sometimes humanity falls prey to the change-for-change’s-sake mentality, and that gives me pause. Generally, long-established institutions resist quick change, and one I’ve long relied on for consistency is baseball. Sadly, even the most traditional of games is under pressure to change.

As the sports world prepares for the fall classic, there is a coming showdown between America’s pastoral sports tradition and progressive forces that seek to change, nay “improve” it. And I’m having none of it. When America’s past-time undergoes changes in rules over the next few years, it will be just one more example of progress corrupting the one thing that “reminds us of all that was once good, and could be good again,” to quote the movie Field of Dreams. It will be another side effect of the Covid pandemic that shortened the 2020 season and allowed the sly imposition of the designated hitter on the National League. Yet, change will not improve the game, and much will be lost.

Last spring in an interview with the Denver Post, old school manager Bud Black conceded he is coming around to supporting the addition of the designated hitter. That really hurts the purists and traditionalists. Granted, Buddy said he’d consider rules preventing the shift, a recent innovation that’s killing offense in games. I’ve never liked the DH, and the shift is new enough I had to pause to consider its benefit. And I don’t like it either. The shift is simply the absurdist end result of using computer algorithms to manage a game with ties to the nineteenth century. Thus, just as football prohibits illegal formations, ineligible receivers, and illegal men downfield, outlawing the shift would preserve the tradition laid out by baseball’s inventors with sound reason and good intentions. We need not improve on the perfect geometry of the field and the established positions.

While the expansion of the DH in 2020 was grounded in common sense rationale of health for players, the continuation is driven not by safety but by money. Progressive forces and bean counters assert the game must evolve to keep audiences engaged, that it must liven up to appeal to younger generations. That’s a nonsense argument outside of the nature of sport, if only because it’s not really about improving the game but increasing ticket sales and television ratings. Simply put, many things don’t need improvement. For, didn’t we grow up playing endless wiffle ball games that stretched for hours? If you don’t understand this, then, for the love of the game, watch The Sandlot soon.

Too often, in a fast-paced technological world, long-standing practices are altered in the name of innovation. In the world of education, teachers and students must always evaluate whether a new app or new website or new technique will positively impact student achievement and learning outcomes, or whether it is simply “technology for technology’s sake.” The pandemic led to the adoption of online learning models out of necessity, and many changes will actually remain a part of pedagogy because they improve learning. Others must be let go because while convenient they aren’t necessarily preferable.

I recall hearing Howard Schultz’s reason for buying back his controlling ownership of Starbucks. Basically, corporate shareholders focused on endless expansion, opening more stores and developing new products, all in pursuit of ever-increasing quarterly profits and shareholder prices. While Wall Street will always take that route, sometimes purists like Schultz realize most of us just want a good cup of coffee. Writer and public intellectual William F. Buckley once said, “A conservative is a person who stands athwart history, yelling ‘Stop!’” 

These days we have far too few people like Buckley, Shultz, Nash, and even Buddie Black who ask whether this innovation or that development is actually such a good idea. 

Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator, & school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @mmazenko. You can email him at mmazenko@gmail.com