A Small Group of People Can and Have Changed the World. I applaud every effort to change the political dialog from the non-important to the things that mater most to all of us. I very much want to be part of making this a reality and am pushing with all I have. What I have right now, however, is only my voice in my writing. I keep writing about how small groups have made world shaking changes because I have been a witness to what a small group of people can do. That witness doesn’t come from my reading about Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, or J. P. Morgan. My witness comes from my experience of seeing what my father was able to accomplish as a linguist.
My father went to the University of Michigan (U of M) from the University of Texas to work with a group of professors directed by the legendary Dr. Charles Fries in the brand new field of Applied Linguistics some 60 years ago. At Michigan, Dr. Fries was experimenting with other possible methods for learning languages away from the traditional methods used at the time. New approaches were put through a battery of tests to prove their usefulness and their validity before being sanctioned and used in their program. This small group went on to develop nearly all of the approaches to language learning used to day. Most of them developed at the University of Michigan in the mid 1950s through the 1960s. When U of M’s management, in their infinite wisdom, decided to deemphasize the program, these geniuses were scattered to the winds, setting up programs around the America and the world. This small group of people had tremendous influence on a field that grew to enormous size.
A few years ago I was talking to an administrator of an English language program from Ecuador who proudly touted the school's then current recognition by the University of Michigan’s Language Institute. The administrator was showing me current credentials of a program that had in essence been closed some 30 years before. I could see that the university was still living off the legacy of that small band of professors who changed the face of language learning of which my father belonged but the school's administrators dismissed and closed. Sometimes people who claim that they are in the know, actually know nothing at all.
After U of M tucked way their language institute, my father ended up at Georgetown University recruited by the Jesuits there to make the well-known and respected Institute of Languages into the School of Languages and Linguistics and become its Dean.
One day, while I was attending the (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) TESOL convention I struck up a conversation with an elderly gentleman at the edge of the exhibition floor. The exhibition was large, having thousands upon thousands of participants, hundreds of exhibitors and days of papers and lectures on the latest techniques for teaching English to speakers of other languages. Teachers and program heads were there from all four corners of the globe. We began talking and when he heard my name, he asked me if I was the son of the former Dean of Georgetown’s School of Languages and Linguistics. We were both looking at Paramount display. They had just acquired Prentice Hall publishing company and to show off their control had a display that abstractly represented the Paramount Mountain in their logo and was more than 25 feet high and occupied a huge portion of the convention center’s floor. When I answered yes to whether I was Dr. Lado's son he turned to me and said something like, “Do you believe this? Your father and I and a few other English language professors started this organization in a basement room in Healy Hall.” He then went on to tell me that he had been the first President of TESOL, and that my father had contributed the first money the organization had and made space for it on Georgetown University’s campus. He told me that my Dad was to be elected its first president; however, there was concern that his being the Dean of Languages and Linguistics that this would constitute a conflict of interest with his position at the university, so he graciously declined. The small efforts of a few professors blossomed into an organization that had tens of thousands of members and improved language programs worldwide.
What I learned from the tales of my father’s efforts was that a small band of people, do have the ability to change the parameters of what is possible. They had formed and grew an organization to become the most influential force behind disseminating modern methods of English language teaching around the globe. And they started this worldwide revolution in education from a few borrowed rooms in a basement somewhere in Georgetown University. After having been witness to this phenomena as a child and the story now being retold to me again as an adult, how could I believe that this wouldn’t hold true for the Occupy movement as well?
The story is true time and time again. Think of Steve Jobs working with Steve Wozniak in their garage and looking at what he was able to accomplish in his life, not for the benefit of himself, even though he was handsomely rewarded, but for all of us who do things with computers, smart phones and iPads. His small band revolutionized communication and in so doing sowed the seeds for other revolutions to come. I am positive that there must have been a moment along the way when Jobs turned to Woz and said something like, "Did you ever think when we were in the garage..."
The Occupy movement is no longer a small movement, but I am sure there are two people standing at the edge of a large rally somewhere saying, “Do you believe this? You and I hatched this crazy idea in a basement and look at it now!”