Daedalus and Icarus…in praise of uncommon flight

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (ca. 1558) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

I’ve been thinking more recently about what motivates individuals to embrace change- or not. Either response doesn’t appear necessarily to be a function of gender, age, ethnicity, education, or income. It doesn’t always seem to be about where a person lives; city, town, suburbia, or country. There’s something more at work here.We celebrate both inventors and resistors, depending upon the purpose of our lesson.  We deride Icarus for trying out those wings while lauding Ben Franklin for his legendary kite flying in an electrical storm. We love that Edison persevered through 800+ experiments before he figured out the electric light bulb, but occasionally still hear even after all the years and frequent flyer miles since the Wright Brothers that “if God had intended humans to fly, he would have given us wings” (alas, poor Icarus.)

“Individually, we tend to not be aware of the fact that we see the world through a particular lens. We believe that we see things the way they really are. If someone has a different sense of what is going on, we view them as being somehow biased or as being influenced by their personal beliefs.” (Sarah Kaplan, Rotman Magazine, Winter 2009)

I’ve been wondering about the role of teachers over time in shaping our tribal responses to new ideas, new inventions, and new ways of doing things that challenge the status quo. Recorded history has more than its fair share of true stories and mythologies that either promote or denigrate  “new.” Teachers use these stories to teach children life’s lessons about status quo and change. They model these lessons in their own language and behaviors. And, teachers are everywhere – in our homes, schools, churches, communities and the virtual media world we frequent more today than traditional learning spaces. The tension that exists between those who embrace or resist changes creates a cultural dynamic of fear and courage, inflexibility and adaptability, ambiguity and clarity.

Some of us dream a worldview in black and white; others add shades of gray; and some in living color.  For me, it comes down to a question of how do we know what to do when we don’t know what to do? Maintain status quo? Change? Adapt? Adopt “new”? What choices keep our evolutionary future most open? After all, to change or not to change remains the ultimate human experiment.We live on a rolling tide in which we push ourselves away from change while simultaneously pulling ourselves towards change in worldviews.

My grandfather, born in 1889, never learned to drive. Emerging from a childhood of buggies and wagons, as an adult he never quite trusted the automobile. Yet, he was enthralled with space travel. When he died, I found lots of family photos, but also the blast-off moments of four decades of U.S. missions into space; each framed inside a series of black and white television sets owned over the years. I wonder sometimes if the same fascination with the heavens that pulled Galileo towards space was at work in my grandfather- or not. Did my grandfather influence my worldview?  Did he influence my father’s?

my father & grandfather w/car in front of old hotel

While Galileo didn’t actually invent the telescope (the trivia answer to that question surely exists on a state test somewhere in the U.S.), he did create quite a stir in the theological pot of a few Catholic Church opinion leaders because of his use of one. In challenge to the Church’s geocentric view of an earth-centered universe, Galileo’s physical evidence of a heliocentric “center of the universe” seems to have been more than its officials could bear.

“… what he observed in the heavens rocked the very foundations of Aristotle’s universe and the theological-philosophical worldview that it supported. It is said that what Galileo saw was so disturbing for some officials of the Church that they refused to even look through his telescope; they reasoned that the Devil was capable of making anything appear in the telescope, so it was best not to look through it.”(Univ. of Tenn/physics)

When it comes to processing Galileo-like challenges to what we know, humans are change resisters. It’s as predictable as the sun rising in our heliocentric solar system. Perhaps it’s programmed into us- a genetic response that helps to maintain the stability of the tribe.  Yesterday, we resisted the ballpoint pen as a tech tool for learning. Today we’re mostly against using the mobile device in a learner’s pocket.  Tomorrow, it will be some new idea, invention, or creation. Despite a current infatuation with innovation “bling”, our cultural track record includes a long history of resistance to inventors and their inventions, thinkers and big ideas, and envelope pushers and their envelopes.

“Ball point pens will be the ruin of education in our country. Students use these devices and then throw them away. The American virtues of thrift and frugality are being discarded. Business and banks will never allow such expensive luxuries.” Federal Teacher, 1950” (Thornburg as quoted in Learning is Messy blog)

Up to a point, healthy skepticism forces those on the leading edge among us to prove themselves to the rest of us, offering the time and opportunity for “new” to be processed, refined, and fool-proofed before it’s ready for primetime. Luddite behaviors also work against us, impeding progress in areas where “new” is needed in real-time, not molasses time. When our resistance to change takes us backward or holds us in place at a time when we desperately need to push forward, we put ourselves at risk because of our fear of taking a risk.  I sense this fear emerges from a primal blending of cognition and emotion into a sense of power loss, resistance to the unknown, and obedience to rules of the tribe.

While this fear has served a protective function for the tribe, it also can be dangerous if conservatism becomes so dominant that the tribe is paralyzed into the inaction of not questioning tribal leaders. Martin Luther confronted 16th century tribal leaders when he capitalized upon the potential of Gutenberg’s printing press, using it as a lead-in to the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther became the first social media pioneer, editor and publisher of the world’s first “best seller.” In doing so, he led a religious revolution that challenged the agenda of the Catholic Church; changing a closed worldview to one of open “print” access to knowledge.

“… the printing press is discovered and put into action in 1450. … Luther would have just been one more reformer in a small area if it had not been for the printing press. But thanks to the printing press, Martin Luther became the bestseller throughout the empire. He out-published all of his Catholic opponents. … He discovered the power of the press in ways that no one else had used it up to that point: everything from woodcuts being used in a polemical way, ditties and rhymes. He mastered this new medium; he used it to spread and turn what would have been a local affair into an international movement.

…Martin Luther first published in Latin, which was the language of the learned. But then he began publishing in German. And he was extraordinarily successful. He found his own voice. And the voice was the voice of the people. He later talked about how he listened to the way the people spoke, so he could use their language and not the elevated language of princes. He deliberately picked a German that could be understood by more people than any other form of German. And he used this German in an extraordinarily effective way. … When Luther translated the New Testament and ultimately the whole Bible into German, he wanted to make it available first to preachers and to those who could read, and then secondarily to everyone else. He thought that if the Bible were made available in the vernacular, with the assistance of his forwards and his marginal comments, everyone would read it the same way he did. The irony is, of course, they didn’t. Within even a few months, people were reading it differently. Luther had released a genie. And once the genie was out of the bottle, Luther, try as he might, couldn’t get the genie back in again. …”(PBS/apocalypse)

Over time, inventions and big ideas have come and gone. Some result in small changes; others revolutionize the world as we know it. Some stand the test of time. Others fail. The telephone was one that created disruptive innovation economically, socially, and even politically. The evolution of the big idea of “phone” continues to challenge and evolve our sense of what connected community means as we transition from landline to broadband, DSL, cell, fiber optics, wireless, phone cards, satellite, web access via face-to-face communication individually, communally, and with audiences.  Such a change brings with it new ideas, new inventions, new language, new definitions of who we are as a culture, a nation, a world. It changes our worldview.  Old technologies are propelled by the curiosity of the human mind into new technologies, but there are no surprises that the telegraph company felt as challenged by the emergence of the telephone as buggy whip-makers, though few in number, felt about Henry Ford’s invention.

“At first, the telephone was seen as a toy. “People were (also) suspicious of telephones. (The 1800’s were) a time when few people had firsthand experience of electrical machines, even telegraphs. There were fears that other people could also listen in on the telephone conversations, or that the sounds from telephones could make you deaf or crazy. … Even telegraph companies encouraged false rumors that the telephone had bad effects because they were afraid of the competition.” (Parker, 1995, p. 21)

Telephone cartoon ref A 1929 comic of the problems created by combining the telephone and the television.
(Pierce, 1990, p. 235)

The cultural response to new telephone technology also provides a great example of how history repeats our stories as we both protect our tribes and value expansion of our cultural boundaries. Our tribes have gathered for thousands of years to exchange goods, services and knowledge around what Thornburg describes as our campfires, caves and watering holes. To control these gatherings, tribal elders selectively censored communication and connectivity as they saw fit, not too dissimilar to our attempts to control young people as they gather near the metaphorical “watering holes” of schools today.

The immediacy of communication inherent in the first of the tools of virtual connectivity, the telegraph and telephone, allowed tribal members to connect beyond the tribal lodges, challenging leaders’ authority and control. From the telescope to the printing press to the telegraph to the telephone to the worldwide web, each technological advance we have made opens pathways to knowledge and information. Some resist and others welcome such access.

Summary of a 1930s Survey

“… Most people saw telephoning as accelerating social life, which is another way of saying that telephoning broke isolation and augmented social contacts. A minority felt that telephones served this function too well. These people complained about too much gossip, about unwanted calls, or, as did some family patriarchs, about wives and children chatting too much. Most probably sensed that the telephone bell, besides disrupting their activities, could also bring bad news or bothersome requests. Yet only a few seemed to live in a heightened state of alertness, ears cocked for the telephone’s ring – no more, perhaps, than sat anxiously alert for a knock on the door. Some Americans not only disliked talking on the telephone but also found having it around disturbing, but they were apparently a small minority. Perhaps a few of the oldest felt anxious around the telephone, but most people … seemed to feel comfortable or even joyful around it. … Sociologist Sidney Aronson may have captured the feelings of most Americans when he suggested that having the telephone led, in net, to a ‘reduction of loneliness and anxiety, and increased feeling of psychological and even physical security’.” (Fischer, 1992, p. 247)

When I think about the inquisitive nature of humans and our capability not to just invent but innovate with the tools of our lives, I am reminded that one of our greatest inventions certainly must be our stories; bringing me back to the role of teacher. Teachers traditionally have served as both gatekeepers and door openers of the curriculum of change, determining the stories that will shape young people’s exploration of “new.”

When James Joyce conceptualized Stephen Dedalus, an allusion to the ancient story of Daedalus and Icarus, he propelled Dedalus on a cognitive and emotional journey to figure out how to fly free as an artist in a worldview constrained by “religion, politics, and nationality (Ch.5, Portrait.)” It was teachers who decided that Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man would receive a space in the canon of British Literature studied in our high schools. It was teachers who decided to give young people the chance to slog through Joyce so that they also might discover what they are capable of creating.

Galileo never dreamed that we would one day have telescopes powerful enough to see the beginnings of the universe. Luther never dreamed of libraries filled with 1000s of books for the people. And, Joyce never dreamed that learners today would be able to download and listen to his books on devices they carry around in their pockets, to hear his words as story not as print…

“What birds were they? …. He watched their flight; bird after bird: a dark flash, a swerve, a flutter of wings. He tried to count them before all their darting quivering bodies passed: Six, ten, eleven: and wondered were they odd or even in number. Twelve, thirteen: for two came wheeling down from the upper sky. They were flying high and low but ever round and round in straight and curving lines and ever flying from left to right, circling about a temple of air.” J. Joyce … Stephen Dedalus in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.


Daedalus, innovator of flight; inventor of carpentry, and skilled artisan of Greek mythology, mostly is known for warning his son Icarus to not venture too close to the sun when he tried out the wings created by his father for their escape from imprisonment in the labyrinth.

I always loved the image of Icarus in upward spiral, feathers catching an updraft, as he soars to touch the sun in a final, imperfect flight. I always hated the image of Icarus falling into the sea as his father watched from below. Perhaps, it’s these images together that represent the journey of humans to explore, invent, and create while questioning each moment of our flight along the way.

About pamelamoran

Educator in Virginia, creating 21st c community learning spaces for all kinds of learners, both adults and young people. I read, garden, listen to music, and capture photo images mostly of the natural world. My posts represent a personal point of view on topics of interest.
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