I heard an interview recently with Charles C. Mann, the author of the book The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Groundbreaking Scientists and Their Conflicting Visions of the Future of Our Planet. In the book and the interview, Mann discusses the competing views of our environmental challenges. Faced with the threats like overpopulation and global climate change, Mann observes, people who offer solutions can be classified as prophets or as wizards. Prophets see the upcoming challenges and promote conservation and reduction in personal consumption. Prophets see that the world has natural limits and the only way to solve our environmental problems is to return to basics. We survive, a prophet would argue, by hunkering down and obeying natural rules.
Wizards, on the other hand, see technology and innovation as offering solutions. Rather than reducing consumption, wizards promote being creative and making more. We survive, a wizard would argue, by being smart and by innovating.
I’m not an environmental scientist so it’s hard for me to weigh in on Mann’s argument from a scientific perspective. Looking in popular culture, though, you can see the environmental prophets and wizards in the media. If we expand the lens a bit, however, I’m sure we can also see prophets and wizards in our own institutions. Maybe they’re not focused on environmental issues but they offer the same types of solutions to the challenges they face. Some argue for a return to tradition while others promote innovation.
Take higher education. If you ask any professor or administrator to solve the problems facing their institutions, they’re likely to offer competing perspectives. Some are prophets who promote solutions rooted in returning their universities and colleges to some imagined past. You may have heard the arguments. We need to raise standards. Or increase rigor. Or make the entrance requirements higher. They see the past as offering the solution to the future. A higher education prophet would argue that institutions of higher education were great once. Let’s make them great again by buckling down and getting back to what made education great.
Wizards, on the other hand, promote solutions rooted in innovation. Wizards argue that we improve schools by changing schooling. They work to create new supports for students and new pathways for learning. One “wizard” who comes to mind is a colleague named Dr. Brent Horton. Dr. Horton created the Biology Mentoring Program (BMP) at Millersville University to help underrepresented students persist in their major. By focusing on social mentorship, building community and celebrating achievements, the BMP has increased underrepresented students involvement in STEM-related fields on campus. The program was recently named as a recipient of INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine’s 2018 Inspiring Programs in STEM Award. That’s how a “wizard” approaches things.
The interesting part of Mann’s book is that it’s not titled the Wizard versus the Prophet. Instead, I think most problems are solved through an interplay between wizards AND prophets. We need to consider innovative solutions as we examine ways to maintain tradition. It’s easy to write about how wizards and prophets see the world differently. It’s much harder to present a shared vision for how they work together to solve problems. Maybe that’s an idea for another post. Any suggestions?