Rolling stones and a changing nation

Published 9:17 pm Monday, February 3, 2014

By Joseph L. Bass

It is difficult for us to understand our own culture. What, for example, does a fish understand about water?

Culture is all around us from the instant we are born. And cultures differ from nation to nation. One cultural characteristic of Americans is our willingness to tolerate, even encourage, change. Other nations are rigid, discouraging change.


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This is an important issue if we are interested in bringing about improvements in American society.

Americans value their traditions and history, but change is part of our cultural DNA. Consider the difference between how Americans think about change and how the English think about it. This can be seen in our thinking about the following statement: “A rolling stone gathers no moss.”

A number of psychological studies have used this statement in efforts to understand an individual’s thinking. But regarding culture, the fundamental question is this. Is it better to be a rolling stone or is it better to be a moss gatherer?

Some years ago I attended a conference in Tucson, Ariz. A group of us attended the same workshops and had dinner together one evening. Half the group was from England and half were Americans. The conference topic related to cultural change and, of course, that is what we talked about informally that evening.

During the dinner, I decided to conduct an experiment and asked each person to state whether it is better to be a rolling stone or a moss gatherer. The results were something of an eye opener for the group.

All of the English said it was better to be a moss gatherer. None would have wanted to be identified as a rolling stone. Each indicated that preserving traditions and the past is of greatest importance in their nation. All of the Americans said it was better to be a rolling stone, asking how a society could improve if the people’s main focus were on preserving the past, instead of trying to improve the future.

Maybe that’s why the Rolling Stones musical group chose its name. From the beginning, the musicians and their music have been identified as symbols of rebellious youth acting out against stuffy adults and inflexible society.

Although some Americans are uncomfortable with change that attempts to bring about social improvement, it is a part of our cultural DNA. We strive for a balance between our traditions, but we are always attempting to improve and make ourselves better. The more we understand about this and ourselves, the better we will learn to work together to build a better America.

Joseph L. Bass, Ed.D. is the executive director of ABetterSociety.Info Inc., a nonprofit organization in Hobson. Email him at