Fascinating conversation tonight. Was talking to a professor of International Relations from Los Angelos and she was talking about how her new students simply share fewer and fewer “reference” points with her.
Obviously history has no “starting” point, but there are seminal moments that demark the start of a new era. Moments people use as way finders for determining when they begin to care about events and tagging everything before as either “old” and “did not sufficiently shape my world.”
My undergrad degree is in history and my Master’s had a strong emphasis on the subject so don’t hear me saying history is bunk. It matters profoundly. But people often resort to a shorthand starting point to explain and give context to their world. I suspect that for those of my generation – those born in the 70’s, this date was 1945. Yes, events preceding this date are important, but World War 2 and its aftermath re-organized and shaped the world I grew up in. The international system, the Cold-War, the baby boom, the consumer society, many of these things spring from or arose after, this date. All the more striking is that these institutions and the culture that shaped them emphasized centralization and oversight. The World Bank, the UN, television, everything had strong hierarchical frame to it. It is as if the ethos was: we are going to bring order to the chaos that is our planet and culture. And who could blame them? After two world wars and the arrival of nuclear weapons, I’d probably want emphasize control too.
The interesting piece is, I think we’ve crossed a threshold. I don’t think teenagers today see 1945 as the starting point of their history. They live in a world of emergence and networks that probably feels completely divorced from the culture, institutions and technologies of 1945. I’m not sure when young people see “their” world’s history beginning, but I’m willing to bet that it is some other date, maybe earlier, but more likely later. They may not have yet seized upon a date or the triggering event as it may not, as yet, have passed into history. Maybe it will be the year the internet pierced popular culture? Or the day netscape was released? Or perhap 9/11. I doubt it will be any of these. But regardless of the date, I suspect that those born in the 80’s onwards are going to have a vastly different view of history than those born in the 60’s and before – and they are going to re-interpurt the 19th and 20th century in fundamentally different way – possibly in a manner that emphasizes interconnectedness and emergence.
For now however, expressing that new sense of history is going to be difficult. Young people remain trapped in a world where the dominant historians, experts and academics – and consequently the underlying narrative – is that of 1945. Personally, I can’t wait for the narrative to shift.