Short Features

The Century That Was
A search to define the meaning of our times

From the airplane to the atomic bomb, the fall of communism and the advent of the Internet, the 20th century has wrought amazing discoveries and terrible mayhem.
Illustration by Fred Carlson

The students who started college last fall were born in 1980. They have no meaningful recollection of the Reagan era and were too young to remember the space shuttle Challenger explosion. They were 11 years old when the Soviet Union collapsed. Roller-skating has always meant inline, and CDs hit the market the year they turned three. Their lifetime has always included AIDS.

The past 98 years have brought change and discovery that was unfathomable at the turn of the century. The atomic bomb, antibiotics, airplanes, DNA, the World Wide Web. The list goes on and on. Near the advent of the new millennium, people worldwide are reflecting on the meaning of the past century, trying to understand the lessons that constitute its legacy and the dangers and promise that it holds for the future.

University of New Hampshire students and teachers are among those pausing this year to ponder the world they live in. They're participants in a two-semester course on the 20th century which explores some of the serious works and themes in literature, art, philosophy and science. The course, offered through UNH's Humanities Program, is team-taught by Michael Ferber, professor of English, Patricia Emison, associate professor of the arts, Jan Golinski, associate professor of history, and professors of philosophy Willem deVries and Charlotte Witt.

The semester last fall focused on the first half of the century, and topics included Freud and psychoanalysis, phenomenology, Einstein and his relativity theory, logic, and revolutionary developments in the novel, poetry and the arts. This semester, students are studying the years 1945 to the present and the rise of postwar art movements, feminism and advances in the life sciences, among other things.

"You could call it a smorgasbord of topics tied loosely around themes," says Ferber, who admits that condensing nearly 100 years of modern history into two semesters was a daunting task. "There were obvious jumping-off points, major geo-political events like the world wars and the collapse of communism. Then we worked out from there, examining how these events affected the humanities and science, and also how events in the humanities and science affected world events."

"How do we define ourselves?" asks Emison. "For the artist, beauty was no longer defined by the classical tradition, as imitation of nature. So the questions became, what is art, and how does the artist construct meaning?"

Philosophers also were concerned with constructing meaning, deVries maintains, at a time when their beliefs about the world were being thrown into confusion. Einstein's theory of relativity, which emphasized the relative nature of one's perspective of reality, was one scientific advance that sent philosophers searching for new ways to achieve a clearer understanding of the world and humanity's place in it.

"I find this course so interesting because of the webbed chronology being sketched through the readings and lectures that are absolutely interrelated," says Molly Wheeler '99, a student in the class. "Einstein's special theory of relativity and the concerns that precipitated his discoveries, followed by Husserl's claim that philosophy could be a science—these alone outline a need that people had to answer deeper questions than what had been addressed up until then, to create a unified idea of the world in which we live.

100 Years at a Glance
High and low points of the 20th century
1900 Sigmund Freud's book, "The Interpretation of Dreams," in which he set forth his "gospel," is published.
1903 Orville Wright pilots his plane at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in the world's first flight by a conveyance heavier than air. He was aloft 12 seconds, and traveled 120 feet.
1908 Henry Ford's Model T automobile goes on the market.
1916 Albert Einstein unveils his general relativity theory.
1917 U.S. enters World War I.
1920 U.S. women get the right to vote.
1928 Paul Nipkow, the inventor of television, performs the first wired image transmission. In 1935, the first official and regular television program service of the world starts in Berlin.
1929 Wall Street "crashes," leading to the Great Depression.
1933 Adolf Hitler and Franklin D. Roosevelt both come to power.
1940 Pablo Picasso is the most famous artist in the world.
1941 Japanese planes attack Pearl Harbor.
1945 U.S. bombs Hiroshima, ushering in the Atomic Age.
1945 Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming discovers penicillin.
1950 Confrontation with the Soviets leads to Korean War; fear of communism results in McCarthyism.
1955 Rosa Parks takes a front seat on a bus, a key event in the U.S. Civil Rights movement.
1957 U.S.S.R. launches Sputnik, the first artificial earth satellite.
1957 Chicago drug manufacturer G.D. Searle & Co. announces development of the birth control pill.
1961 The Berlin Wall becomes a momument to the Cold War.
1962 U.S. scientist James Watson identifies the physical structure of DNA.
1969 U.S. astronaut Neil Amstrong takes "one small step" on the moon.
1970 The Vietman War tears apart a nation; four students die at Kent State.
1978 Louise Brown, first baby conceived through in vitro fertilization, is born in England.
1983 Time magazine names the computer its "man of the year."
1986 AIDS epidemic becomes a major public health problem.
1989 U.S. scientists J. Michael Bishop and Harold Varmus discover cancer-causing genes called oncogenes.
1989 Communism begins to collapse; the fall of the Berlin Wall.
1991 The end of the U.S.S.R.
1993 The World Wide Web revolution truly begins.
1998 A peace agreement is reached in Ireland. The U.S. House of Representatives votes to impeach President William Jefferson Clinton.

"We read Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents and learned of his discoveries of the stages of development and existence of the unconscious," she continues. "Then we went on to learn about the Surrealists and their passion to bring the conscious and unconscious worlds together. Connections can certainly be seen."

The faculty members teaching the course are also making connections. Because they each lead smaller discussion groups each week, they are often asked to cover material that is outside their specific discipline.

"The course keeps you on your toes," admits Emison, who recently guided her group through a discussion on the theory of relativity. "You realize there are lots of things that impact your field that you don't know about."

Golinski agrees. "I just finished reading Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, and I love that aspect of the course. For me, the cultural dimensions of science become more interesting."

While there's agreement on the pivotal events of about the first two-thirds of the century—World War I and II, the dropping of the atomic bomb, the Cold War, the eradication of smallpox and other major breakthroughs in medicine—there is less consensus as history moves closer to the present. Advances in technology and communication, the global economy, applied ethics and the environment have all become hot topics in the most recent decades.

"You need distance to determine what is truly important," explains deVries. "We may think the things we're doing now are terribly important, as we all aspire to long-term value. But will they be important 300 years from now?"

A new generation, however, may already be defining the next millennium.

"I think that people's discomfort with our society, fueled by the lack of direction that humankind has, will culminate in a revolution," says Wheeler. "Perhaps this is wishful thinking."

Will Mason '00 has a different spin. "Environmental consciousness needs to be spread wider than it is now, and the prospect of war should really be thrown out. Somehow I hope we see a return to simpler living, but with the benefits of modern technology. With faster, more efficient means of communicating, the world is getting smaller, while people's perspectives are getting bigger. It's allowing us to erase some of our cultural and political boundaries a little more and helping us to live as more of a global community. We can begin to work more efficiently at solving world troubles...hopefully."

 Easy to print version

blog comments powered by Disqus