In How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, Michael J. Gelb writes about the principle of "Sfumato."
Sfumato, Gelb said, means "going up in smoke" or "turning into mists." Among art critics the term sfumato describes the hazy, mysterious qualities of much of daVinci’s painted works. Gelb believes this quality of sfumato is a perfect metaphor for da Vinci’s life. It seems Leonardo lived his life in a state of paradox. Da Vinci was a man who not only was comfortable with sfumato, but thrived on it as evidenced in works like the Virgin of the Rocks, St. John the Baptist, and the Mona Lisa.
The community college has been labeled "the contradictory college" because of its paradoxical mission. The community college serves to educate bright young people to transfer to four-year institutions. ICC’s history is filled with academically-talented students who spent two years on our campus and then graduated from outstanding four-year colleges. But the community college also helps those who have been less successful as students in high school—and sometimes life. Here the community college provides a fresh start. Additionally, the community college offers leisure, continuing education, recreational, and culturally enriching opportunities for literally anybody who wants the experience. Finally, the community college provides vocational and career training for students. Our mission is inherent with conflicting and cross purposes. As an educational community, we constantly strive to balance competing needs. We live in a world of sfumato.
Our own paradox, however, perhaps is what has made community colleges like Illinois Central an integral part of communities across the nation. The tension among multiple purposes provides us with our own sfumato. As with Leonardo da Vinci, inherent contradictions challenge us to look at the needs of our community in new and creative ways. Years ago, the Russians developed an engineering process called Triz. This process requires the problem solver to manage the contradiction. By doing so, the engineer becomes free to explore ideas not before contemplated. Out of sfumato, engineers find solutions to "unsolvable" problems. In investigating the challenges of community colleges, we inadvertently follow some of the same basic principles of Triz.
The "contradictory college" as a term, sometimes has been used as a criticism of the community college system. After all, all good organizations have singular purposes, laser-sharp focus, and perfect vision, right? Wrong. In reality we know such plans provide guidelines only, and in our constantly changing world, we navigate the stormy waters of our environment using these plans mostly as a sextant to keep us relatively on course.
More and more organizations today must not manage clarity, but cope with ambiguity. They don’t deal with fact, they work around uncertainty. They don’t live in a world of precision, but instead one of sfumato. In other words, the biggest challenge today for organizations is to manage paradox.
As we face the issues and problems of a new millenium, the community college is well positioned to deal with the sfumato of the educational needs of our community. Since our inception, we have been based on living with opposites, of embracing (as authors Collins and Porras put it), the "genius of the and" rather than the "tyranny of the or."
Our broad-based missions and our multi-faceted student bodies force us to work and deal with opposing needs and views. Because of this history, we learned much about paradox and working through ambiguity. As we face the future, we find this unique history provides us with a consistent foundation for dealing with sfumato. We are, after all, the contradictory college. IBI