As a historian, when I’m following current events I almost always think about them as I imagine a historian will do a hundred or two hundred years from now. I can’t help myself, because this is just how I think, but the process also puts an interesting twist on my reading of current events. My affiliation with the study of history is far stronger than my affiliation with any political party, position, or policy. In fact, my view of the world through a historical lens probably determines a lot of my political views. In trying to understand events, I look for patterns, like anyone else, but the kinds of patterns I look for play out over decades and centuries.Thinking along these lines, I began to imagine what the syllabus might look like for a course on the modern western world (similar to a course I currently teach), when it’s taught a hundred years from now. It was an interesting exercise, not only to try to predict the future, but to think about how future historians might look back on our past and present. It would necessarily be drastically compressed in a survey course like this, so I thought about what aspects of our lifetimes would stand out.
It should go without saying (but perhaps does not) that what follows is not what I want to happen, but what seems possible or even likely given our current trajectories and what I know of how political systems, economics, and societies evolve—that is, that the only thing you can count on is constant change. I very much hope our future is actually much brighter than this. But for that to happen, we’d have to start making much better choices as a society than we’re making right now.
Here’s what I came up with, as a thinking exercise, not a recommendation!
History 102: The Western World in the 19th to 21st centuries
Week 1: The Invention of Citizenship (1750-1860)
The American and French Revolutions, and the modern British constitutional monarchy. What are the origins of democracy? How was citizenship defined? Who was included in the new democracies, and who was left out? Reactions to the new ideas: reactionaries, Romantics, and revolutionaries.
Week 2: Industrialization and Cultural Revolution (1780-1900)
The origins of modernity, introduction of class warfare, the origins of environmental devastation. The rise of the middle class, decline of aristocracy and the exploitation of workers.
Week 3: Racism and Imperialism (1860-1914)
Public misapprehensions of science, racist ideologies, and the scramble to colonize the globe.
Week 4: The Wars of Ideas: Capitalism, Socialism, and Fascism in the 20th century (1860-1991)
Mass politics, ideological warfare, and state terrorism. A civilization destroys itself. The United States as the only major power left whole.
Week 5: American Dominance (1945-2001)
The expansion of the American Empire around the world. The American nuclear umbrella and the Cold War. Oil and gas at the center of global politics and security.
Week 6: Decline and Fall Part I: European Empires (1945-2008)
Decolonization, and political and economic obsolescence: Europe retreats.
Week 7: The Information Revolution Part I (1950-2050)
Microcomputing to internet to unlimited global connectivity: access to information as a global resource, and the Neoconservative backlash (ignorance as political platform).
Week 8: Decline and Fall Part II: The American Empire (2001-2090)
Deregulation and the destruction of capitalism. Cycles of global economic crashes and the contraction of the American Empire. Great War with Iran triggers American decline relative to the other Great Powers. India emerges as military superpower through technological and organizational innovation.
Week 9: Federalism and Localism (2001-2090)
European micro-economies and micro-democracies combined with the revival of the EU to regulate trade and security bring Europe back to political prominence. Late in the period the same model was adopted in parts of U.S., initiating partial recovery of prosperity.
Week 10: The Rise of the Third World (2030-2090)
Africa, East Asia, Latin America and the Middle East adopt the European model of combined federalism and localism and rise to compete with India and Europe as global super-powers. Return of the multi-polar world. War for Arctic Resources and global climate change make authoritarian Russian Empire the richest country in the world and arbiter of global energy supplies, causing political tensions with the democratic regional federations.
Week 11: The Resource Race (2050-2090)
Water shortages, famine, and climate chaos leads to civilizational wars. The collapse of the United States into social-democratic Northern States and neo-fascist Southern States. Collapse of the Russian Empire into very rich social-democratic North and authoritarian South.
Week 12: The Information Revolution Part II (2050-2090)
Rising wealth and access differences between educated and uneducated (mirrors late Industrial Revolution, except access to information rather than economic class origins is determining factor in wealth and social status). Micro-governments increasingly divided into informed and rich versus uninformed and poor, leading to violence and the break up federalist institutions around the world.
Week 12: Cataclysm (2090-2100)
The Great Demographic Catastrophe, renewed “dark age.” Mass famines, warfare, and destruction of world knowledge archives causes sharp decline in technological development.
Week 13: Renaissance Part II (2100-present)
Reduced global population resolves environmental and resource problems. Now-smaller communities re-organize into renewed micro-economies with balanced resource distribution and equitable access to information.
Like all histories, this one leads up to the “present” as if everything that ever happened before was headed toward a happy ending on purpose. It’s very common to not only think that all of history is an upward trajectory leading to a superior present, but also that history comes to an “end” with us, and no further catastrophes will occur on the scale they once did.
One of the greatest challenges today of teaching 20th century European history is finding ways to make today’s college students understand how people in 1914 could have so stupidly allowed World War I to happen, or why everybody in Germany in 1933 didn’t just emigrate, and why seemingly “normal” people in every country in the industrialized world in the 1930s thought fascism was a good idea, or why millions of people in Russia between 1917 and 1991 continued to believe in the dream of socialism even while the Soviet government did all the things it claimed to be against.
An important lesson I think you can learn from studying history, actually, is that human beings have an infinite capacity to bury their heads in the sand and do stupid, self-destructive things rather than rationally face the reality in front of them. All of us are doing this all the time, but it’s difficult by definition to catch yourself doing it. Analogies to the past—where people like us were making the same mistakes but we now see clearly how wrong they were—can help wake us up. There are many good reasons to study history, but I think this is one of the most important ones.
What do you think history will say about us 100 years from now? What lies ahead? Please share in the comments!