Practice I

A Brief Essay by Barbara Tuchman:

I suppose no one will dispute the fact that the world in mid-twentieth century is in serious, possibly desperate trouble. You, the students are heading into it while I am more fortunate in being on the way out, but we share the disadvantage of having been born into a disoriented age, a period of extreme disturbance and small encouragement. The last volume of the Cambridge Modern History covering 1898 to the present is entitled The Age of Violence -- which, considering the not inconsiderable violence of previous eras is quite a distinction.

The physical aspects of our troubles -- pollution, war, overpopulation -- you know all about, and equally intangible aspects -- that is, the general discontent and uneasiness, dissatisfaction of the young, bewilderment of the old, crime and tension, collapse of standards both aesthetic and ethical, the sexual wilderness and obsession with sadism, and so forth. The catalogue is long and very familiar, and I need not run it down to the bitter end. My purpose is not to discuss the condition but to try, as a historian, to locate the cause.

Doubtless some of you will think this a meaningless endeavour, on the theory that the past is unimportant and that what counts is today. I gather from occasional excursions to the campuses that the young are passionately concerned with the present and inclined to shrug off the past as irrelevant. They will want to know all about Kafka but not Plato, Sartre but not Shakespeare, Black Power but not the French Revolution, and they believe American history began with John F. Kennedy. Each student wants instant relevance from every subject, and he wants every subject to "hook in," as I heard it expressed at another university, to his own personal problem, whatever that may be. Narcissism and now-ism -- the self and the present -- are the two governing concerns of the campus at the moment. The advantage of history is knowing that there is as much relevance to be found in the Peloponnesian War as in yesterday's newspaper; more relevance in the Socratic dialogues than in some hastily concocted course in social psychology. What is relevant, after all, is human experience, and this has been accumulating for quite some time. Any person who considers himself, and intends to remain, a member of Wester society inherits the Western past from Athens and Jersusalem to Runnymede and Valley Forge, as well as to Watts and Chicago of 1968. We may ignore it or deny it, but that does not alter the fact. The past sits back and smiles and knows it owns him anyway. It seems to me perfectly obvious that we can no more escape the past than we can escape our own genes. "Others fear what the morrow may bring," said the Moslem sage, " but I am afraid of what happened yesterday."

History, which is my discipline, has been defined as the means by which society seeks to understand its past. Towards that understanding, I would like to offer the following proposition: that as a result of the historical experience of the twentieth century so far, man has lost faith in himself, as well as lost the guidelines he was once sure of, and that this loss is primarily responsible for our current distress.

To be specific: we have suffered the loss of two fundamental beliefs -- in God and in Progress; two major disillusionments -- in socialism and nationalism; one painful revelation -- the Freudian uncovering of the subconscious; and one unhappy discovery -- that the fairy godmother Science turns out to have brought as much harm as good. With the exception of the loss of religious faith, which began its modern decline about a hundred years ago -- let us say for the sake of convenience, with Darwin -- all the rest has occurred within the twentieth century. That makes for quite a load of discouragement in seventy years or approximately one lifetime.

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Page Last Updated: 18 April 2004.