Moving Forward

Lately I have been thinking a good deal about a well-used phrase in our society, “moving forward.” It pops up in some cases when describing how we proceed into the future; in other instances it is posed as the alternative to the way in which, for some reason, we find ourselves “stuck.” Like, “getting on with my life,” “moving forward” is held out as a hopeful, appealing option once we have been able to deal with the diversion, the thing that has gotten us off track, and are at long last ready to get back to the important matters.

One of the reasons I have been thinking about “moving forward” is that I am sensing a growing reluctance among school boards and search committees, in times of leadership transition, to opt for an interim headship period. As appealing and, in some cases, necessary as that option might be (ie., following the tenure of a long and esteemed head of school, or following a crisis of leadership—in some cases one short headship after another), the governing bodies of our schools increasingly feel a need to move ahead, perhaps fearing that an interim headship will issue in a period of marking time, risk of stasis, and perceived lack of resolve over the future direction of the school. Given the competitive markets in which many of our schools exist, one can certainly understand why “moving forward” is such a compelling alternative to a more reflective, “catch-one’s breath” time between leaders.

Of course, one can argue that moving forward too quickly into the next regime might essentially bring about an interim situation of another name—a short-term tenure. Without fully understanding where the school has been, or allowing valuable time to pass in which it becomes clear that the previous era is really over, an institution may be unconsciously setting itself up for a “no-win” situation with the new head, soon to be back again in the open market conducting another search.

As true as that might be, the voices in support of “moving forward” seem to be gaining the upper hand in so many circumstances today. For a good many reasons that is not likely to change. However, I do think it is important to understand better what we might really mean by, and what may be behind our use of, the term, “moving forward.”

If I hear the use of this phrase correctly, it is not the same as progress. For progress assumes a gradual and incremental improvement in the condition of things as we think about the future. Lots of things have discouraged our appetite for the notion of progress—the economic downturn for one, reminders of original sin for another (the theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, for example, was no lover of the notion of progress), and our use of the term, “moving forward,” carries a very different tone to it than the notion of progress.

In fact, one might say that “moving forward” is propelled as much by a fear of backsliding as a belief in progress. If we don’t move ahead, we feel we may risk losing something, whether it be our competitive edge, the momentum we currently have, or our ability to keep our deepest fears at bay. A donor might not be as willing to give during an interim period as when a new leader, complete with a recharged vision, is in place. Parents may be less eager to enroll their children in the school if they don’t have a picture of “who will be in charge” in the upcoming years. Those are very legitimate concerns, but they are concerns tinged with fear about what might happen as much as what we see ourselves to be moving toward.

I may be reading things incorrectly, but I believe our use of “moving forward” as a compelling argument for whatever strategic decisions we make is one of those “catch-all” phrases that lumps together our impulses to charge into the future with our worries about what the future might bring. In our postmodern and complex society, where the future feels far less predictable than we might have thought it to be before 2008, such “catch-all” phrases can work wonders for us, at least in helping us reason our way toward responses to multi-tiered problems and unsolvable dilemmas.

Add to that pile of factors one more: moving forward speaks to the impulses of a culture that finds itself under immense pressure to keep up the pace, travel at a very fast rate, and not fall behind. It is an icon, of sorts, for how we live our lives and the speed at which we go through life.

Many educators have noted the frequency with which students today use the term, “wait,” either in response to a question asked or as a prelude to a question of their own. It may be nothing more than one of those words such as “whatever” or the ubiquitous “like” that young people latch on to in their communications. It may be, however, telling us something more about the deeper worry they may be feeling over the velocity of their young lives. At the same time, it might also be a word worth adopting or invoking in a meeting of a school board or a search committee. I doubt if it will ever acquire the power of “moving forward,” but it could help insure that the use of that phrase does not go unquestioned.