At the End of an Age Part 3






Chapter 1: At the End of an Age (Cont.)

The Age of Schooling

The age of institutional schooling was another feature of the Modern Age. There were universities in the Middle Ages but few (or no) schools of general learning. By the 17th century schooling became extended to younger and younger ages, eventually including children of the poor. By the 19th century the ideal of general and public education, increasingly involving the responsibility of governments, became sacrosanct. Still, much of the training and the proper education of children remained the responsibility of parents in the home. During the 20th century this changed. Like so many other things, the role of the schools became inflated and extended, diminishing the earlier responsibilities of parents. In the United States the principal and practical function of the schools became custodial (especially when both parents were working away from home), though this was seldom acknowledged. After 1960 at least one-fourth of the population of the United States spent more than one-fourth of their entire lifetime in schools, from ages two to twenty-two. As on so many other level and ways of mass democracy, inflation had set in, diminishing drastically the content and the quality of learning: more and more young people, after 20 years in schools, could not read or write without difficulty. Schools were overcrowded, including colleges and universities. In this increasingly bureaucratic world little more than the possession of various diplomas mattered.

  • The word “meritocracy” was coined, meaning that the rise and positions to be acquired in society depended on the category of the degree and on the category of the college or university wherefrom one graduated.
  • The number and the variation of degrees awarded by higher institutions grew to a fantastic, and nonsensical, extent. Besides being custodial, the purpose of institutional education was now the granting of degrees to provide instant employment.


The Age of the Book

The inflation of “education” had much to do with the decline of reading (and of its declining requirement in the curricula of the schools). This was another sign of the end of the Modern Age, which was also the Age of the Book. The invention of the printing of books coincided with the beginning of the Modern Age; it was both consequence and cause of many of its achievements.

  • By the 19th century men and women who could not read became a small minority among the populations of the Western world.
  • The inflation of printed matter unavoidably reduced its quality; and there were other influences at hand.

The reproduction of more and more pictures in newspapers, magazines, and books; the advent of moving pictures and, finally, of television led to a condition in which – again, not unlike the Middle Ages – the routine imagination of large masses of people became pictorial rather than verbal.

  • The influence of books was receding – together, too, with the decline of people’s attention span, or with their capacity to concentrate, indeed, to listen.


The Age of Representation

I now come to the most difficult of these necessarily generalized and inaccurate summaries of devolution: that of art, which in the Modern Age was inseparable from the ideals not only of beauty but of representation. Much of the art of the Middle Ages was symbolic, and idealized. The Renaissance of course discovered humanism, the beauty of the human body, and the complexity of human nature; and it had begun with an emulation of Greek and Roman art which was marked by “mimesis,” or in another word: “re-presentation.” A deep shift in consciousness at the end of the 18th century than affected art, first of all poetry and painting. This was the conscious recognition of imagination, beyond the older idea of inspiration (an early recognition of the inseparability of the observer from what he observes).

  • After the early 19th century the artist was no longer seen as an artisan, meaning a craftsman, but rather as a person of unusual, indeed, superior sensitivity.
  • By the early 20th century what was oddly, and belatedly, called “modern art” meant a drastic and brutal departure from the traditions and the achievements of the Modern Age.


The Age of Science and the age of an evolving historical consciousness

This Jeremiad has its conditions, and limitations. One of them involves the distinction between the passing of the Modern Age and the Decline of the West.

  • Almost all of the symptoms of the ending of the Modern (or European; or Bourgeois) Age have been most evident within the so-called Western world.
  • Because of the continued influence of Western habits and institutions and practices all over the globe, not a few differences between the customs of the Western and the non-Western world are now sometimes hardly more than differences in timing.
  • In almost all of the abovementioned spheres of life the rapid dissolution and the malfunctioning of the institutions and ideals of the Modern Age gathered speed during the 20th century, and especially during its second half.
  • The 20th century was a transitional century (as was a century at the end of the Middle Ages, from about 1450 to 1550).
  • The 20th was also a short century, lasting from 1914 to 1989, 75 years.
  • The mutation of characteristics and institutions and habits is especially (though not at all exclusively) evident in the United States and in the industrially or technically most “advanced” countries of the Western world.
  • After 1989 an unprecedented situation arose: the United States was the only Superpower in the world.
  • And then there is Christianity. Its churches have been emptying. Is Christianity disappearing? I do not think so.

And now: the Contra-Jeremiad. A list of the enduring achievements of the Modern Age. Enduring; and lasting; and matters still in progress.

  • We are healthier than ever before.
  • Infant mortality has become minimal.
  • Our life span has become longer and longer.
  • Large masses of people are now able to live in conditions of comfort available only to the richest or the most powerful of our great-grandparents.
  • Large masses can afford to travel to faraway continents and places in a matter of hours, with enough money to spend.
  • Institutional slavery has largely ceased to exist.
  • Almost every state proclaims itself a democracy, attempting to provide a minimum of welfare to all of its inhabitants.
  • Men and women have been propelled to the moon and back; they have landed there twice.

We cannot crank our lives backward. We must also know that there were (and are) no Golden Ages of history. The evidences of decay all round us do not mean that there was any ideal period at any time during the Modern Age.

  • History and life consist of the coexistence of continuity and change. Nothing vanishes entirely.
  • The institutions, the standards, the customs, the habits, the mental inclinations of the Modern Age still exist around us. So does the respect for many of its achievements – political, social, but, even more, artistic.
  • The respect for older things has now acquired a tinge of nostalgia.
  • During the last 40 years the meanings of the adjectives “old” and “old-fashioned” – especially in the United States – have changed from “antiquated” or “outdated” to suggest some things that are reliable, solid, enduring, desirable.
  • The time will come (if it is not already at hand) when people will look back and respect and admire (perhaps with a sigh, but no matter) – indeed, that they will recognize – the past 500 years as one of the two greatest eras in the history of mankind, the other having been the “classical” one, Greece and Rome.


The need to rethink the current idea of “Progress”

Now, for the first time in the history of mankind, dangers and catastrophes of nature are potentially (indeed, here and there actually) threatening nature and humanity together. These dangers are man-made. They include not only horribly destructive atomic and biological weapons but many effects on the nature and on the atmosphere of the globe by the increasing presence and intrusion of the results of applied science. So at the end of the Modern Age the control and the limitation and even the prohibition of some of the applications of science – including genetic engineering – becomes a, sometimes global, necessity. At the same time there exists no international or supra-national (and in most cases not even a national) authority that would enforce such measures.

  • At the end of the Modern Age, for the first time in 200 years, more and more people, in more and more fields of life, have begun to question the still present and now outdated idea of “Progress” – an idea which, in its present form, appeared at the beginning of the Modern Age: an ideal as well as an idea that has now begun to lose at least some of its appeal.
  • Sometime during the past quarter of the 20th century the word “post-modern” appeared: another symptom of the uneasy sense (rather than a clear recognition) that we are living through (or, rather, facing) the end of an age.

We are at the end of an age: but how few people know this! The sense of this has begun to appear in the hearts of many; but it has not yet swum up to the surface of their consciousness.

This will happen, even though there exist many obstacles to it – among them, enormous but corroding institutions. As these lines are being written, something is happening in the United States that has no precedent. A great division among the American people has begun – gradually, slowly – to take shape: not between Republicans and Democrats, and not between “conservatives” and “liberals,” but between people who are still unthinking believers in technology and in economic determinism and people who are not.

  • Non-believers are men and women who have begun not only to question but, here and there, to oppose publicly the increasing pouring of cement over the land, the increasing inflation of automobile traffic of every kind, the increasing acceptance of noisome machinery ruling their lives.

This book is not a political or social pamphlet. Its theme is simple. It has to do with conscious thinking. We have arrived at a stage of history when we must begin thinking about thinking itself. This is something as different from philosophy as it is from psycho-analysis. At the end of an age we must engage in a radical rethinking

            Of “Progress,”

              Of history,

                Of “Science,”

                  Of the limitations of our knowledge,

                    Of our place in the universe.

These are the successive chapters of this book.

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