The Echoes of Downton Abbey

Echoes of Downton Abbey 1-14-13

Societal change is difficult to describe, much less interpret accurately. We tend to rely on apt phrases like shifting sands, blowing winds and tossing waves. Such metaphors are helpful because the experience of significant change yields the same feelings of vulnerability we encounter when a storm emerges on the scene. We can protect some things and prevent certain impacts, but there is little we can do to dissuade the storm when it inevitably comes.

Many are caught up in the BBC television series Downton Abbey, now in its third season. It’s popular because it’s good television – something we see very little of these days. Set in England in the early 20th century, the story focuses on an aristocratic family named Crawley. On the surface, the unfolding saga follows the travails of a family and their servants through the ups and downs of relationships, conflicts and a bit of intrigue. The broader backdrop, however, bears witness to the tremendous social and political upheaval that reshaped much of Europe in the years before and after World War I. As I have watched the series, my mind has continued to drift between then and now, finding parallels between what we are experiencing today and a century ago.

The individual and collective experiences of the Crawley family are a microcosm of a much larger macrocosmic picture of that era. In their case, a once stable social order is collapsing. The social contract between the aristocracy and the working classes was a willingness to extend both privilege and respect in exchange for employment and philanthropy. The system worked for a long time. Yet the combined effects of World War I, the Spanish Flu and growing unrest began to fray an increasing threadbare social fabric.

Economic realities, likewise, reshaped expectations as wealth was dissipated through generations, squandered through extravagance or lost in a period of sweeping geopolitical and technological change that compounded risk. New technologies began to reshape society with the emergence of new industries. Through the early decades of the 20th century, innovations like the automobile and the telephone, coupled with the availability of electricity, refrigeration and plumbing, gradually changed expectations for individual quality of life, personal ambition and social mobility. Despite the many setbacks, including the Great Depression, one thing was clear – European society was experiencing massive and unalterable change.

My thoughts have turned to the changes I have seen in my life thus far. Born in 1960, my early years were shaped by the social revolution of that decade. My early memories of society are about assassinations, hippies, the Vietnam War, feminism, Watergate, protests, space flight, civil rights, abortion rights and an energy crisis. Many have referred to the period of the 1960s and much of the 1970s as a time of social upheaval, even revolution. Perhaps it’s still too early to tell what the long-term effects will be. We know how to describe those years now, but interpretation may be best left to future generations.

What about today? I think I hear some faint echoes, but it’s impossible to describe, much less interpret.

What I find interesting is the way of life each generation has sought to preserve and defend has sometimes been overturned by future generations. They inherit societies with both the power and mandate to shape as they deem appropriate. I think we lose sight of this too often. Whenever I hear a politician speak about his or her grandchildren and the need to preserve an existing legacy, I am reminded the world my parents encountered as mature adults was vastly different from the one my grandparents had in mind as they made decisions about their family or formed opinions about society.

There is much to celebrate today, and despite the conflict and turmoil of the moment, American society has a lot going for it. I do wonder, however, how this nation will be reshaped by the kids who were born 50 years after me. The babies of 2010 will be the leaders in 2050. They will be nurtured by a society experiencing the winds of change. We assume they will prioritize what we think is important. We can’t imagine they will hold different values or be guided by different principles. Yet history teaches us they will likely order the world in a different way than we do today. Some of their energy will be devoted to correcting the real or perceived errors we have made already and other missteps we are bound to make. Each generation of leaders bears the consequences of decision or indecision of its predecessors, along with all the attending impacts. They will have to forge a new consensus taking into consideration the realities of an era yet to come.

Will they look at economics, healthcare, immigration, social policy and geopolitics through the ideological lenses we have today? I think it’s unlikely. The prism they will need in order to find new ways will demand of them more than we can realistically anticipate. Perhaps the greatest gift we can give them is not a set of policy mandates we believe to be impervious to change. Rather we may serve them best by strengthening our social fabric, developing citizenship and building their skills for collaboration, negotiation and conflict resolution.

A scene from Downton Abbey finds Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, facing the potential loss of the house and all he has worked his whole life to preserve. His mother-in-law, an American named Martha Levinson, is visiting. She does not really fit in with the traditional culture of Downton Abbey, but has significant wealth. She’s a disruption in the house and seems to symbolically embody the discomfort of change for the entire household. She is seated quietly with Robert after a long day, and the conversation unfolds as follows:

Mrs. Levinson: You know the way to deal with the world today is not to ignore it. You’ll just get hurt.

Lord Grantham: Sometimes I feel like a creature in the wild whose natural habitat is gradually being destroyed.

Mrs. Levinson: Some animals adapt to new surroundings. It seems a better choice than extinction.

Lord Grantham: I don’t think it is a choice. I think it’s what’s in you.

Mrs. Levinson: Well let’s hope that what’s in you will carry you through these times to a safer shore.


Share this story:


8 responses to “The Echoes of Downton Abbey”

  1. Ross Vermeer '88 says:

    This post on looking forward to an uncertain future seems to be a good time to return, one last time, to issues I think are important for Central College and Mark Putnam to address. Although I too like Downton Abbey, it would be good to see more focused and visionary attention paid to Central’s future in its own uncertain times.

    On that theme, I took the time recently to read ‘The Work We Need to Do Together’ (, a document that outlines plans for Central’s future. It’s good to see so much effort devoted to planning (it’s a long paper), but I would like to add a couple of comments on the vision for Central’s future offered there.

    Throughout the document there is much discussion of ‘narratives’ that must be ‘defined’; an ‘intellectual framework’ based on ‘engagement’ and ‘change’; an ‘integrated learning model’ that seems to defy any concrete delineation of subjects students should study; a desire to form an ‘international community’ of ‘global learners’; and more along these lines.

    These rather hazy concepts seemed to boil down to several potential policy initiatives.

    First, let’s consider the document’s stated aim to develop Central’s ‘international’ presence in higher education. It’s natural to try to build on Central’s strengths in this area, and I do hope it works.

    But in both the planning document, and here in Mark’s blog posts, I see little taste for confronting and trying to understand the world we actually live in, and instead much bland optimism characteristic of an outmoded view of internationalization.

    For example, Mark most directly addressed current international issues in a blog post on the so-called ‘Arab Spring’. He said the following:

    ‘Recent events in several Middle Eastern and North African countries are signaling a change. A younger, educated and more secular population is reflecting the emergence of a new global society. The “ideology” behind these movements is not necessarily well-defined, widespread or even consistent. Yet somehow there is a shared purpose rooted in a set of fundamental values about fairness, freedom and opportunity – echoes of past struggles on many shores. Aided by technology, these citizens of a virtual community are not contained by the boundaries of a nation-state, but are redefining the role of political power in the hands of the people.’

    Less than two years later, how insightful do those comments look? Libya, Syria, Egypt – all are in chaos (at best), or have descended into horrific civil war (i.e. Syria). There is no sign of the younger, more educated, more secular elements in these countries prevailing now that ‘democracy’ has unleashed the bonds that held these societies in uneasy stasis. Let us pray that they do prevail.

    I noted back then that plenty of countries around the world are not what they seem to many American observers (and advisors). That is, the citizens of these countries do not comprise majorities of eager Jeffersons and Madisons awaiting the chance to exercise democracy because it will enable them to blossom into open, tolerant, ‘multicultural’ societies like the USA. And they are certainly not looking to play any part in a ‘global society’ conceived along liberal western lines, at least not the parts we’re trying to write for them.

    There is no such thing as a global citizen. There is no emerging global society. There are no signs that multiculturalism, at least in its naïve 20th-century conception, has ever been, or will ever be, a long-term success. There are instead peoples and cultures that may hold some common views and that can join at times in seeking common ends, but that always, ever, differ in serious, consequential ways.

    I suggest reading two recent articles, one by Robert Kaplan ( and another by Michael Totten (, who quotes Kaplan and provides additional proof of his thesis. I have lived overseas for over two decades, and in my experience the Kaplan/Totten realpolitik approach to internationalization is far, far more accurate than the tired and discredited League of Nations/Wilsonian ideology that has persisted for a century now, right through the Bush and Obama administrations.

    So: if Central really aims to provide its students with a 21st-century ‘international’ perspective, might I suggest something more genuinely critical and open-eyed than ‘global citizens’, and the flags waving from dorm windows envisaged in ‘The Work We Need to Do Together’? ‘International’ topics offer vast scope for study, but please, prepare CUI students to experience and assess the world that’s really out there, not one that flourishes only in utopian dreams.

    Next, let’s turn to the emphasis in ‘The Work We Need to Do Together’ on ‘building’ and ‘defining’ Central’s ‘narrative’. A concern with ‘narrative’ burst into literary criticism and theology and other theoretical fields decades ago. It’s taken a while for its fallout to drift into the popular culture, but ideas do of course have consequences. These days many professional communicators think in terms of controlling and manipulating ‘narratives’ as a good way to shape messages and influence perceptions. But I am deeply distrustful of this approach: a ‘narrative’ is too easily assumed to be malleable, i.e. its close adherence to actual events and facts can be treated as, shall we say, optional, if there are aims (always noble aims, of course) that would be better served by a narrative that’s more skillfully and self-consciously assembled than a straightforward account of the plain truth.

    I am in no way accusing anyone at Central of this kind of skullduggery. But I do wonder: would it not be more honest, more seemly, and ultimately more successful to abjure the tools and jargon of advertisers and political advisors, and commit instead simply to ‘tell Central’s story’? If Central is all that we say it is, that should be good enough.

    There is also much talk of ‘sustainability’ in ‘The Work We Need to Do Together’, including a discussion of controlling costs. That’s good: the ‘sustainability’ Central should worry about is financial. And reining in the reliance on debt – on both national and institutional levels – is a moral issue. It is irresponsible and immoral to ask our children and grandchildren to pay for benefits we enjoy today, whether out-of-control national entitlement programs, or exploding tuition fees.

    I was disappointed in how little attention was paid to financial sustainability in Mark’s ‘The Road Ahead’ series last year. Those posts reassured us that liberal arts colleges have been under pressure to change at various times in the past, but that they’ve always outlasted those pressures and have remained – and can still remain – much as they are. I found this view surprisingly reactionary, given that it now costs six times as much, in real terms, for Central to do just about exactly what it already did 50 years ago. In words I’ll borrow from law professor Glenn Reynolds, the popular Instapundit: ‘something that can’t go on forever, won’t’. Just like Downton Abbey . . . .

    Finally, after reading ‘The Work We Need to Do Together’, there was something niggling at the margin of my mind. Then I had it – I went back to the document, and searched for the words ‘Reformed’ ‘Church’ ‘Christian’ ‘faith’ and ‘God’. Not one of these appears in this lengthy plan setting out Central’s future.

    Why this omission? Perhaps it’s an accurate reflection of the esteem in which Central’s administration and trustees now hold its Christian foundation and heritage. Perhaps it is one reason the document seems so lavish of form, and so lacking in content: the aim of an American liberal arts education, at least in its historical conception, was to train up young people to go into the world and do work that glorifies God. But that work does not seem to comprise any part of ‘The Work We Need to Do Together’ at Central. I wonder what this means.

    I apologize for this comment’s length. And having gone on so long here, I think I have now contributed what I can to this conversation, and to what I hope and pray is a successful future for Central.

    • Preston Steenhoek says:

      WOW! “little taste for confronting and trying to understand the world we actually live in”, “bland optimism”, “an outmoded view of internationalization”, “no emerging global society” “utopian dreams”, Reformed Church, God, Christian faith omissions. Ross Vermeer has chosen a thoughtful commentary by Central’s president to vent on subjects well beyond what I assumed was intended by the author. I guess that is Ok since thoughtful dialogue is one of the obviously important goals of what Mark is doing by writing these pieces. I, for one alum, cannot accept Ross’s apparent view of the world, its people and our place in it. One man’s utopian dream is another’s meaningful effort to affect necessary change in a stubborn world. The Arab spring is not a one or two year effort to be thrown on the trashpile of history because it did not immediately produce Ross’s idea of a perfect democracy, whatever that is. We in the US are still trying to figure out how to make it work for us after over 200 years. The college’s ability to be seen for what it has to offer among a plethora of good competitive institutions is focused on the right things. It’s website, its on-campus activities. it’s focus on encouraging student involvement in charitable work, among many other efforts, all properly reflect its Christian tradition as part of its mission. Faith seen through effort,not cheap,easy talk. Central is not the same institution it was 50 years ago. In my opinion is is much better. Keep up the good work!

    • Concerned Alum says:

      To quote the last part of “The Work We Need to Do Together’

      “…We need to be both nimble, evermore willing to consider new things and alternate approaches, and at the same time rock-solid in our commitment to our core principles and values. Our ability to do both is what makes us Central.”

      Since there was no mention of Christianity or Reformed Church Affiliation, it appears current Central leadership does not consider either as being any part of Central’s core values or principles.

      As one other person has commented “Central is not the same institution it was 50 years ago.”

      All this makes one think and understand why many CUI almuns are very concerned over Central’s direction and are watching closely to determine how and IF they want to support Central in the future!

    • Don Huffman says:

      Dear Ross,
      One blog does not a policy make! If one focuses on one topic, it is easy to be critical, but if one understands the larger picture it is evident that the broad range of focus is evident in what is happening at Central.
      Hope you can read some of the other items and see this as a statement of one issue, and as such is of interest.

  2. I was picking up on a lot of criticism in Ross’ commentary too. It is useful to question things constructively and to keep the dialectical tension of ideals and reals going. As the scripture says, by their fruits you shall know them.

  3. Preston Steenhoek says:

    Concerned Alum above generalizes by exclusion when arguing that Central excludes Christianity or the RCA from its values. Pleases bother to look at the “About Central College” section on the college website and what are the first things we see? In the very first sentence we see “….affiliated with the Reformed Church in America.” In the second sentence we see a reference to, and are invited to view, the “Covenant with the RCA.” In the immediately following Mission Statement we learn that the college is “guided by ecumenical Christian tradition.” Why are we working so hard to find problems where none exist?

  4. As a member of the Class of ’56 in Central, thirteen years and 7 months of retirement have taught me that I am experiencing what should be expected by most of our USA retired citizens.Change tends to make what we used to enjoy as adequate levels of finacial security no longer adequate. Robert Crawley’s experience in Downtown Abbey has not been foreign to many who live in the USA. The reality is hard to accept. In the 1990’s we were living in a bubble of optimism which was fueled by deception. The CEOs were encouraging the reports of their companies to exaggerate the profit column because their own “success” to wealth was based on how well their company was doing. Like adding fuel to the fire, investors believed the exagerated reports and drove the Stock Market up to unrealistic prices of the value of the companies. This deceived many people. In the early 2000’s reality was dawning. An employee of a bank who helped me with our mortgage said that she and her husband were changing their plans for early retirement.

    What the bank employee was reacting to was the loss of their IRA’s value and all their pension plan’s projections. Suddenly there was a loss of 41% in our equity markets worldwide. There was 27 trillion dollars less to count on for retirement. (according to the Bloomberg World index in September 2008) Suddenly there was $27 trillion less to pay off our debts. (likewise $27 trillion less to support our philanthropy and to finance our colleges, and $27 trillion less to pass on to our heirs)

    We are now wondering how the USA will cope with its debt that began in the 1980’s and tripled in one decade so that I was saying in the 1990’s, “we are bankrupt but haven’t declared it yet.” We also are now experiencing the consequences of some leaders (see Project for New American Century in Wikipedia) who did not understand Washington math and went to war without a plan to pay for it except by lowering taxes to stimulate an economy. (that had deceptive reports of optimism)

    I am not sure that I see this all with 20/20 hindsight, but I do believe it is reasonably realistic. Our predictions of the future will prove even less accurate, I fear.

    It takes a lot of faith to have hope for the future, but that is what we must have. CUI, May your glory never die!!! Rather may your glory be perfected!!!!

  5. Current Faculty Member says:

    In respect to Ross Vermeer’s and “Concerned Alum’s” comments regarding Central College’s affiliation with the RCA, during the presidential search of a few years ago I suggested to the consultant that RCA representatives be invited to speak in campus informational sessions about the affiliation – historical, current, and future. Since that time I have heard a few references to such possibilities, but to my knowledge no such sessions have been put in motion. Whether the affiliation is something that one is personally interested in or not, my opinion is that informational sessions would be helpful for all segments of the campus community. How can the campus community proceed forward effectively without being knowledgeable of its institutional history? Thank you.