Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The death of 20th century culture

On my just completed visit to my parents, I had plenty of time to peruse their rather large collection of books.  They were born in the 1920’s and have always been interested in art and history. Their choice of books reflects that background.  There are biographies and autobiographies of painters, actors, generals, statesmen and business people. Books in French were intermixed with the classic novels of 20th American writers.  My father’s World War II experience is reflected in the large mass of Battle of the Bulge books. At a glance of the eye, I could see all the major phenomena of the 20th century.

Sharing many of their interests if not all of their experience, I am interested in and had read many of those books. Thus, the titles and subjects on the shelves were familiar and far from alien.  I appreciate more than ever the rich background of knowledge my parents had conferred to me through their conversation and, of course, books. At the same time, I also experienced a strong sense of sadness: very soon, this rich corpus of knowledge will become forgotten and irrelevant. Nobody will know or care about the Spanish Civil War, General Eisenhower, Stillwell and the American Experience in China or the stories of Joseph Joffo, to name just a few.  The next generation will find them as interesting as the chronicles of the cities of ancient Greece.  I can already see this process in my engineering students in Israel, aged between 21 and 28, whose knowledge of the 20th century events that shaped their country, not to mention the whole world, is so limited.  In teaching them English, I often find myself teaching them history.  I choose not to think what their children will know about “the ancient history” of the 20th century.

On further thought and with great sadness, I realize that this process of cultural loss, even death if you will, is as natural as its physical equivalent. The people and events that shaped our world gradually and inevitably become ever more distant in people’s memory.  How many names and events of the 14th or 15th century, some 600 years ago, can even the most knowledgeable person recall?  What do know about ancient Mesopotamia or Rhodesian cultures? Their traces in the soil of human development have almost disappeared completely.  In that sense, cultural death is also sad and inevitable.  Likewise, we should strive to delay this result as much as possible, but learn to accept its inevitability. To paraphrase the call used for royal accession, the 20th century is over; long live the 21st century.

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