When student activist Jack Weinberg declared “Don’t trust anyone over 30”—at the height of the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley in the mid-1960s—he was, to some extent, speaking for an entire generation, a generation that had lost faith in the wisdom of their elders, a generation that had concluded that the present had little or nothing to learn from the past. But he was also giving voice to an intuition that flows quite naturally out of cultural currents that predate the babyboomers, such as the theory of the avant-garde, the Whiggish faith in progress, the modernist obsession with all things new—which Nassim Nicholas Taleb has aptly dubbed “neomania”—and the sense, so well articulated by Henry Adams in The Education of Henry Adams (1907), that the modern world constitutes a radical break with history: “in essentials like religion, ethics, philosophy; in history, literature, art; in the concepts of all science, except perhaps mathematics, the American boy of 1854 stood nearer the year 1 than to the year 1900. The education he had received bore little relation to the education he needed. Speaking as an American of 1900, he had as yet no education at all. He knew not even where or how to begin.” Is this modernist mistrust of the past justified? I used to think so. But lately, not so much.
Inventions like the microscope and the telescope have made it possible for scientists in fields like molecular cell biology and particle physics to see things—faraway stars, subatomic particles, and microscopic viruses—which simply couldn’t be seen in the ancient world. As such, the rapidly changing received wisdom in fields which benefit from these amazing technological innovations is easy enough to explain and justify. The rapidly changing received wisdom in the humanities and the social sciences is far less easy to explain and justify.
Is there any technological advance which has made it possible for us to “see” things about human nature which would have been “invisible” to thoughtful people in the ancient world? I can’t, for the life of me, seem to think of one. Has modern life, and everything it entails, so fundamentally rewired our brains that human nature is, in the twenty-first century, dramatically different from the human nature which prevailed in, say, the Egypt of the Pharaohs? I doubt it. And this doubt leads me to two troubling questions: If our capacity to “see” human nature hasn’t changed much, and human nature hasn’t changed much, how can we justify and explain the rapidly changing received wisdom in the humanities and the social sciences? What’s more, if little has changed, how can we justify the claim that the present has little or nothing to learn from the past?
—John Faithful Hamer