Institutional Memory

Knowledge is a slippery thing. If we don’t take care we can lose it. Organizations loose it when members leave or retire without passing it on to their replacements. Suddenly the organization does not know how to do part of its job and has to spend time and money finding out again. Sure, sometimes new blood brings fresh ideas which work better, but more often the organization just makes painful mistakes until the lost experience can be regained.

Human societies experience the loss of Institutional Memory when one generation fails to pass enough of what it has learned on to the next.

As a child in the 1970’s I watched family dramas on TV. By “family” I mean that they showed children growing up, having adventures, and dealing with situations in life which were new for them. I particularly remember The Swiss Family Robinson. The children often approached difficult situations by doing what they had seen their parents do. When things did not work out they often discussed the problem with their parents and then tried again.

These shows were entertainment, not instructional films. The writers were not primarily conveying lessons to children. They were creating dramatic tension and having their characters resolve it in the tradition of the Western story arch. Getting advice from persons with more experience (often parents) was a natural part of the story.

Back then TV sets still broke down frequently. Sometime around 1980 our TV broke down again and this time my parents either couldn’t or didn’t repair it. This was for the best since we children were addicted to it. There was no program so boring that we would not watch it. But that is another story.

Several years went by during which we would see TV only at other people’s houses or occasionally when we stayed in a hotel.

joker card with boyish character on it

On one such occasion we saw a situation comedy called Mr. Belvedere. The episode we watched centered around a pre-teen boy. This child held everyone else in contempt and made non-stop wisecracks at the expense of the adults in his life. His parents were either unable to deal with him or too self absorbed to fulfill their parental roles and so left him in the care of of the title character who was the family butler. This butler is a decent character who lets the abuse roll off him and tries to mentor the boy as best he can.

At the time I was in my teens and simply saw the show as amusing in a silly way. My parents found it shocking. They were shocked by the contempt which the boy showed for adults. Today I find it shocking too.

What changed it for me was my own transition into adulthood. I found at that being an adult is hard. There is a lot to learn and it is much easier if you can receive timely knowledge transfers. I saw peers get into serious difficulties by repeating age-old mistakes.

It is not wrong to question the views of one’s parents if there is sound reason for doing so. But children like the boy in Mr. Belvedere question (or rather mock) everything just because they can. They hold institutional memory in contempt and pay a high price.

liturature, society

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