Monday, April 4, 2016

A Plea from the Past: What History Teaches Us about Our Future

Hi all,

My name is Michael Trauntvein.  I'm a student at BYU in the Construction and Facilities Management program.  I'm also an outdoorsman, a writer, an amateur cook, and a Mormon.

I've chosen a topic that is fundamental both to our understanding our history and our hope for our future.  We've heard time and again that "history repeats itself".  My purpose is to show you that not only does history repeat itself, but it does so at an increased rate as civilization develops digital literacy.

How can we learn from history?  Even more importantly, why should we learn from history?  Most would say that we study history so we can avoid mistakes that were made in the past.  In our Digital Age, learning about history has never been easier - through online databases and encyclopedias, we literally have the world at our fingertips - and yet most people know as little about it as their parents and their grandparents do.  My thesis is that in a world in which historical events repeat themselves, we must use the modern conveniences available to us learn from the past and take responsibility for our future.

In his 2014 book Sustainable Civilization, Klaas Van Egmond wrote: "Throughout... history, developments have continued to lose their equilibrium... One-sided values start to dominate, after which society loses continuity and heads for catastrophe. Through a primitive learning process, the one-sided values are translated into their equally one-sided opposites, after which history repeats itself just as dramatically. In a drunk-like state, people and society wander backwards and forwards through their own value pattern."  Klaas' main point is that "developments can only continue if a certain middle way is found between fundamental opposites within that social value pattern."

To emphasize this argument, we will use the example of the 20th Century compared to our current Century.  We will illustrate how the course of events that happened over 100 years in the last century have all repeated themselves in the first 16 years of our century as communication and transportation technologies have made the spread of ideas and ideologies much more rapid and learn that digital learning is essential to the progress of human civilization.

Raising the American Flag at Iwo Jima, World War II, 1944.
The Attack on the World Trade Center, 2001.

Both the 20th and 21st Centuries began with an age of peace and prosperity, a "Gilded Age" of sorts in which transportation and communications technologies were rapidly advancing; however, both were cut short when acts of terrorism, after which the people responded with the same, overzealous demand: All-out war.  The World Wars took years to progress because motorized transportation was still new and communications took days or even weeks to be sent back and forth.  In our day with the Internet, jet airplanes, and the like, the War on Terror has progressed far more rapidly.

Important war-time and pacifist leaders of the 20th and 21st Centuries.

In the first half of the 20th Century we see the rallying of nationalists on all sides of the conflict and overwhelming support in favor of the war effort, just like we saw in the first months and year or so of the War in Iraq.  The people rallied behind fearless leaders for morally ambiguous causes.  However, with the progression of the 20th Century, we see the war-weary people beginning to support more pacifistic leaders.  In a similar manner, people today are beginning to rally behind pacifist leaders, albeit more rapidly with the quicker dispersion of war photos and stories via the Internet and online news networks.

Social Reform Movements of the 20th and 21st Centuries.

Both as a result of the war efforts and the counter-ideology that developed from them, the second half of the 20th Century also became a time of dramatic social reform.  During this time we see the rising role of women in society and an expansion of women's rights, as well as an expansion of racial minority rights.  The last eight years of the 21st Century have also been marked by massive social reform, especially with regards to the feminist and LGBT communities spread through social media and online news networks.


The Occupy Wall Street Movement.
Another result of the war efforts and social reforms we've discussed was the development of counterculture.  As Van Egmond wrote in his book, one-sided viewpoints in society are often met with equally one-sided counter-viewpoints in a vicious cycle.  The second half of the 20th Century saw the development of an anti-war, anti-nationalism, anti-patriotism movement with the "hippies".  Today we see a vaguely similar ideology with the "hipsters", Walk on Wall Street, and other movements.  These countercultures from both centuries were were also met with extremely conservative and highly-nationalist counter-countercultures like the Tea Party.

So, clearly there are parallels between the 20th Century and the first 16 years of the 21st Century.  So, what?  Why is that important?  This brings us all back to Van Egmond's idea of a sustainable civilization.  Thus far in history, humanity has been walking the drunken path, weaving from one side to the other, ever in danger of toppling off the edge completely.  What's most alarming is that the developments we saw in the full 100 years of the 20th Century have all occurred in the mere 16 years that we know of the 21st Century.  Not only are we still bobbing back and forth from side to side, but we are doing so at an increasingly rapid rate.  A likely cause of this is the development of communication technologies that we have experienced in the Digital Age.  It is now easier than ever for ideas and ideals to spread through the masses through online sources - especially social media.  In talking with my wife on the subject, she concluded: "We can't stop the repetition of history without making true changes as a society." 

Imagine if we used the Internet as it was truly intended: to spread knowledge and further understanding, instead of using it to spread ideologies and superficial communication?  For the vast part, the Internet's potential is squandered on "likes", "relationship-statuses", and seven-second cat videos, when in reality there is a wealth of knowledge, that, if tapped by more people, could have a great influence on the world as a whole.  I learned that fact in this very rhetoric class: our teacher encouraged us to seek our own learning outside of class using primarily online sources such as Wikipedia, YouTube, online historical databases, etc.  Instead of browsing Facebook for an hour each day, I started browsing these sites on topics such as the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Protestant Reformation.  Over the course of this semester I've begun to see the world in a slightly different light, and, believe it or not, I actually enjoy learning about these new things that I never knew existed before!  It was through this learning that I was able to see the pattern that our society is now facing, and it's from this learning that I'm able to make the following recommendation: that we each take individual responsibility for humanity's collective future.

JFK firmly believed that no extreme could help humanity progress; instead, he advocated Van Egmond's "Middle Path".  In his address at the Loyola College Annual Alumni Banquet of 1958, he declared, "Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer.  Let us not seek to fix blame for the past, but let us accept our own responsibility for the future."  
So what does history teach us about the future?  If anything, it teaches us that we are not good at learning from past mistakes and failures.  It teaches us that if we do not "take our own responsibility for our future," the drunken cycle will continue until perhaps there is no future for which to take responsibility and only a past for which to fix blame.  What, then, must we do?  We must begin to learn from the past to save our future by using our rapid-communication technologies not to throw blame and negativity; but to spread knowledge, truth, and history so we can break out of the well-worn rut and forge a new path for human civilization.

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