The National Conversation

Make it New

A Letter from the Editor

Magazine cover   

 Former faculty member Peter Drucker was occasionally called an economist. If he heard this he might point out that  “an  economist is interested in the behavior of economies,”  whereas  he was interested in the behavior of people. More  often than  not he is called “The Father of Modern  Management.” That’s  right, capital T, because before  Drucker’s first book The  Practice of Management came out in  1954, management as we  know it today did not exist.
      In the hindsight of history it may appear as though this was  a  career he set out to design during his formal education, but  of  course it was not something he saw immediately. Nor would many people see what his career would become before it actually emerged.
     Drucker was what we would consider today a student of the liberal arts—he studied avidly across disciplines. Later he was a law student, earning a J.D. in international and public law, while working full-time, something he believed was the best model of education.
     He was an apprentice at a cotton trading company at one point. Then he was a journalist. Then he was a  chief economist for a private bank. He even wrote works that were burned and banned by the Nazis in Germany. Drucker was also an immigrant. He came to the United States early in his career and became a citizen, living and working in America until the time of his death in 2005.
     Who could have guessed he would lay the foundations for a whole new field? Certainly not Drucker. So how did this improbable career come to pass? By identifying and meeting a need, Drucker once explained.
     “There were plenty of books out there at the time on individual aspects of running a business—finance, for example, or human resources. Each of them reminded me of a book on human anatomy that would discuss one joint in the body—the elbow, for instance—without even mentioning the arm, let alone the skeleton and musculature.”
      What need was Drucker meeting? Books on management? No. He was connecting what had previously been disconnected, and in turn, unseen. He taught us that meaning had value not only for the individual, but for the corporation and society—something, I’m sure he could only understand at the intersections.
      Drucker has been called many things: guru, consultant, teacher, author, writer, philosopher, economist, historian. Ironically, he was rarely called a lawyer, though he held his highest academic credential in that field. So what did he call himself? A “social ecologist.”
      I confess, I had to look up the precise definition of this term. And I love what I found. A social ecologist is someone who “envisions a moral economy that moves beyond scarcity and hierarchy, toward a world that reharmonizes human communities with the natural world, while celebrating diversity, creativity and freedom.”
      There is a map of Drucker’s life’s work in his own writing. What I am so profoundly struck by (aside from how closely his approach and life’s work mirrors that of Bennington alums) is the evolution of his observations and the eerie accuracy of his predictions—from forecasting the rise of the “knowledge worker” (a term, of course, he coined) and “outsourcing,” to the fall of the “Blue Collar” worker, to the greater importance of culture over strategy.
      The fulcrum of his work is not in the earliest of his 39 books, but in his later writing, particularly The End of Economic Man, published in 1995. His biographer Jack Betty wrote, “From that book forward Drucker stressed the need for a strong non-economic society to make ‘inequality appear far less intolerable’ and to shore people up against the bottom-line nihilism of the market.”
      In one of Drucker’s last interviews in 2004, he saw a “very difficult transition” coming for Americans. He warned how trying it would be for Americans to adjust to the reality that their county would no longer be “the big boss” of world economies, no longer the most creative or plural of societies. I believe he was drawing on what he learned in his youth in Germany, living, as one writer put it, in a time and place where “unreason ruled,” and as Drucker put it, where he witnessed “wildly cheering rallies… displaying the abracadabra of fascism.”
      I am particularly attuned to Drucker’s late thinking and especially concerned with his ultimate insights. I am recalling these now, in this space that I typically use to draw your attention to individual pieces and stories, because it feels more relevant than ever before. Because magazines take time to produce, and because most of the content in this issue was developed before November 8, 2016. Before November 8, the cover was designed. Before November 8, the stories were written. Before November 8, I mentally penned this note, which now reads more like a letter, and it was very straightforward in my mind: this issue is about work.
     But I see now, the thing that I could not see in the middle of making, that this issue is about the future. It’s about the limits of what the present moment can tell you, and how you must move ahead anyway—and how history is that movement. It’s about how the best education happens in relationships and connections, not in the shadow of walls, the limits of silos. It’s about intersection (of disciplines and people) rather than exclusion.
      Drucker said many things worthy of quoting. Like, “The most important part of communication is hearing what is not said.” Or, “The critical question is not ‘How can I achieve?’ but ‘What can I contribute?’” Or even in the advice he gave to one of his mentees: Your mission is to transform latent energy into active energy. To build islands of health and strength.
      In this issue about work and the future of work, I hope you see the ways in which your work is building—relationships, and islands of health and strength—and mostly how it is already transforming the worlds around you.

Briee Della Rocca
Editor & Creative Director