the shining city on the hill and the great white whale

I suspect that my memory is a bit suspect on this, which given the time that’s passed wouldn’t surprise me, but I have the memory from an AP English class in high school that the shining city on the hill is a reference from Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, an allegory with the subtlety of a 2×4 upside the head. The shining city on the hill was the goal towards which the hero Pilgrim was journeying along the Straight and Narrow Path, through the Slough of Despond and the other stops along his journey.

The shining city on the hill has become a not uncommon reference, one that I’ve used on more than one occasion, as the end point that we might not reach in our efforts. But while we might not reach the shining city, we need to have a goal towards which to work. Towards which to strive. Towards which to direct our efforts, rather than bouncing around in some administrative Brownian motion, bouncing randomly from one thing to another, which can happen in large and complicated organizations.

The great white whale is of course Moby Dick. I remember taking a literature class as a university student from a Professor who felt that Moby Dick was one of the great American novels and indeed one of the great novels in absolute terms. I’ve read Moby Dick a few times now; I try and reread it every few years, and it is one that I enjoy more each time I read it. Ahab’s obsession towards finding and killing Moby Dick still resonates, being quoted by no less an illuminary than Khan Noonien Singh

So why have I brought together the shining city on the hill with the great white whale? I’ve been reflecting a lot recently on the objectives towards which large institutions direct their effort and their energy. And I think there’s a central question that we always need to address. Are we moving towards the shining city on the hall, moving towards the heavenly destination in which all things will be better, or are we at sea, bound by our irrational obsession to find and kill the great white whale that in the end we cannot do more than lose our ship to.

Change is a complicated thing, and the decisions we need to make in that process of change are complicated decisions, often and necessarily based on partial information. We rarely have the luxury of making decisions based on perfect or complete information and we do the best we can. But I do think we can and must continue to reflect on the goals of the institution and to keep evaluating that basic decision, is our goal the shining city on the hill or is our goal the great white whale.

~ by Jim Anderson on 13 January 2018.

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