Evanston RoundTable, Feb. 23, 2017
How odd it is to be born in the middle of time. We learn from cosmology that the universe is 13.7 billion years old, and depending on which theory one subscribes to (closed, open, or flat), has billions to go. Hopefully.
We learn from geology that the earth is some four billion years old. We learn from paleontology that our precursor hominids – ape men – arose in Africa 4 million years ago, and started using tools perhaps 3 million years ago. (The first million are always the hardest!) Homo sapiens, our very own pesky species, evolved some 200,000 years ago, and went from hunter-gatherers to farmers only about 12,000 years ago. And from all appearances we have yet to attain maturity.
Of course, without an historical record, we did not know any of this for a very long time.
Ancient peoples believed time was infinite and cyclical, like the cycles of the year. Beginning in the middle ages, based on their belief in the infallibility of the Bible, various sages pronounced the universe around 6,000 years old. Shakespeare’s Rosalind and the astronomer Johannes Kepler believed it. The definitive prognosticator was Bishop James Ussher, who declared in 1650 that the universe began the evening of October 22, 4004 B.C.
What a shock it must have been to learn otherwise. What a shock it is for us to realize we are born thousands of generations into human history.
Children tend to ignore history – they are history, sufficient unto themselves. They have no familiarity with real people older than their grandparents. But when they grow older and learn that their grandparents were preceded by their grandparents, who were preceded by their grandparents, who were preceded by uncountable and unknowable thousands of other generations of grandparents, each with a life as rich and compelling as theirs, history begins to take on a deeper meaning and perspective.
Thus we need to study and revere history for what it can offer us about that perspective, and try to shape our destinies accordingly.
The study of history used to be considered essential to a well-rounded education. There were almost three times the number of college history majors in 1970 than today, according to Planet Money. Nowadays STEM subjects are ascendant. STEM is critical, certainly, but even STEM has history that needs to be understood. So much of scientific wisdom – like an Earth that was thought to be flat or at the center of the universe, or Bishop Ussher’s prognostication – turned out to be in need of drastic revision.
We are born in the middle of things. We struggle to understand what came before, so we can make what comes after as good as possible. Knowing our place in history allows us to take the best of the past, and put it to work to promote the best of the future.