The “butterfly effect” and working as an educator

Stephen King’s 2011 bestseller, 11/22/63, centers on a modern day schoolteacher, Jake Epping, going back in time in an attempt to prevent the assassination of President Kennedy. Even though it clocks in at nearly 850 pages, it’s an absorbing tale. And like the best of popular fiction, it’s both accessible (e.g., perfect for a long holiday weekend) and thought provoking.

Although the challenge of saving the President is the main plot driver, the novel also offers a terrific backstory about Jake’s work as a teacher. As a law professor and denizen of higher education since 1991, naturally I found myself dwelling upon that sidebar storyline.

Butterfly effect

King’s novel, and many time travel tales in general, embrace the idea of the “butterfly effect.” The butterfly effect theorizes that a butterfly’s wings could potentially create a tornado hundreds or thousands of miles away. In popular culture, it has come to represent the idea that small changes in choices or actions may trigger or lead to ripple effects of a profound and unanticipated nature.

I make no claim of expertise about the butterfly effect’s legitimacy as a scientific theory, but I have to say that, as a social phenomenon, it makes intuitive sense to me. One thing leads to another, say two of my favorite educators about the art and process of learning, Drs. John Bilorusky and Cynthia Lawrence. The butterfly effect takes that idea to more dramatic ends.

Of course, inherent in the butterfly effect is its unpredictability. We can’t necessarily foresee these significant events, and they will be a mix of good and bad. (Butterfly. Tornado. Only good if you’re a storm chaser or a bored weather reporter.) That’s what makes the theory so appealing for time travel stories.

The work of an educator

As an educator I also know that a good act one day can spawn further good acts by others in the years to come. Indeed, that’s what teaching, mentoring, and scholarship are all about: If we’ve been at this business long enough, then we’ve witnessed what happens when our work has a positive impact somewhere down the line.

On a day-to-day basis, the benefits of our work may not always be evident to others. In addition, a class or course that didn’t go as well as we had hoped, or a publication that doesn’t appear to be attracting much attention, may well cause us to wonder if we’re spinning our wheels or wasting our time. But on occasion — perhaps on many occasions if we are fortunate — we are gifted with the realization that our work allows us to make a difference, even if we’ll never be aware of its full effects.

Responsibility

Given the possibilities of the butterfly effect in education, there’s another element to this mix, and that’s responsibility.

I don’t want to overstate our potential influence. Folks, it’s not like our students and readers are hanging onto our every word — a basic truth that too many educators forget or never learn. Nevertheless, we have a responsibility to put into the stream of human ideas and activity our best insights, understandings, and instructions.

Put simply, if we knowingly or negligently put out nonsense, distortions, or lies into the stream of information and ideas, then we have poisoned the well and let down society.

No guarantees

In essence, engaging in the work of education is an ongoing act of faith. All we can do is our best. And — even then — we have no guarantees about how our lessons will be embraced or used or misused or forgotten. After all, butterflies are free, yes?

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The butterfly effect and teaching

Heather A. Hass, “Teaching and the Butterfly Effect,” Chronicle of Higher Education (2004)

Paul D. Carrington, “Butterfly Effects: The Possibilities of Law Teaching in a Democracy,” Duke Law Journal (1992)

Wikipedia articles

Butterfly effect

Butterfly effect in popular culture

Book recommendation!

It has nothing to do with the main themes of this blog, but if you’re into time travel stories, check out Jack Finney’s classic illustrated novel, Time and Again (1970), which takes its protagonist back to New York City, circa 1882. Stephen King calls it the best time travel story ever written. For me, discovering the book in the mid-1980s was a magical reading experience.

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This post was revised in January 2022.

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