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Issue No. 45 (June 2003) -- Mark Satin, Editor

From blinded by the present
to hot-wired to the past and future

For as long as I can remember, academics have been grousing that Americans have no sense of past or future.

Just the other day, Harvard’s Mary Ann Glendon warned that we’re living in a “Cave of Present-Mindedness,” and a former president of Brown University (Vartan Gregorian) told a high-toned crowd at the Library of Congress that our culture is “dominated by a present-mindedness.”

I don’t mean to be rude, but what universe are those Learn’d Astronomers living in?

For the last decade, our culture has been consciously and deliberately hot-wiring itself to the past and future.

And not just any old past and future: the global past, the global future.

It’s one of the most remarkable examples of conscious cultural creativity on record. . . .

The transition

Not long ago, Professors Glendon and Gregorian would have been right.

After the Depression and World War Two, the “Greatest Generation” engaged in a mad scramble to meet its material needs.

Then came years of public policies that could only have been designed by people blinded to the lessons of the past and blinded to the probable long-term consequences of their actions (urban “renewal,” war on Vietnam, forced busing).

Even our wonderful Movement was blinded by the present. Hundreds of thousands of us marched under the Viet Cong flag -- felt great at the time! Millions of us were so unnerved by The Bomb and outraged by the war that we made life choices that proved less than peerless.

But we learned from our mistakes -- as well as from the tradition-drenched religious and spirituality movements and the future-focused environmental movement

And now we have cadres of “world historians” and “futurists” spreading their perspectives with missionary zeal and little resistance.

Here’s how the global past and global future are entering the very fiber of our beings, making us deeper and broader than we’ve ever been. . . .

Past perfect

I had your typical Baby Boom junior-high-through-high-school history education -- two years of Minnesota history, two years of American history, and one year of what they called “world history” but was really just one over-the-hill teacher lecturing to us without even giving us a textbook to use. (Or homework!)

Ninety percent of world history class was spent on two subjects -- ancient Mesopotamia and the Punic Wars. The rest of the time our teacher did things like read us Reader’s Digest articles on the evils of Communism.

I was in 10th grade, and I’d never been so bored in my life.

If you haven’t had kids in school, chances are good that you’ve missed what’s been happening to world history lately.

If world history isn’t the most dazzling, challenging, and mind-expanding subject in the secondary and undergraduate school curriculums now, then it’s mighty close.

The focus isn’t on “the West” any more, it’s on such truly global phenomena as trade, comparative gender structures, the spread of religions (and diseases!), and the environmental consequences of human actions. Kings and generals share center stage with cultural figures, social trends, and political movements.

Leading the change has been the National Standards for History project with its “National Standards for U.S. and World History” (www.sscnet.ucla.edu/nchs/standards), essentially a plot by Baby Boomers with a social conscience.

Many people assume the National Standards are government standards or Department of Education-endorsed standards. They’re nothing of the sort. They were put together by UCLA’s National Center for History in the Schools in cooperation with 30 professional organizations and scores of individual history teachers from across the U.S.

They’re “voluntary guidelines,” nothing more. But they’re so comprehensive, so exciting, so ambitious, so smart, that they carry mucho weight.

The 1996 revised guidelines -- the best yet -- call for four “topics” to be covered between Grades K-4. Among them: “Living and Working Together in Families and Communities, Now and Long Ago,” and “The History of Peoples of Many Cultures Around the World.”

The guidelines then call for a “minimum of three years” of world history instruction between Grades 5-12 -- and insist that the courses be “genuinely global” in scope [emphases added - ed.].

To put flesh on those aspirations, the guidelines divide world history into nine eras, and identify 5-7 themes to be taught in each era (e.g., for the era 1000 b.c.-300 a.d., “the development of early agrarian civilizations in Mesoamerica”).

If you don’t believe the guidelines are being taken phenomenally seriously now, just look at your kids’ (or your friends’ kids’) high school world history texts. You’ll be pleasantly surprised!

Better yet, look into the Advanced Placement World History course, which was launched in the year 2000 and is now being offered in over 1,000 high schools nationwide (http://members.cox.net/jpharmon/world.html). It’s a course to die for, and many bright kids know it.

The AP World History exam was first administered in 2001, and more than 21,000 students took it -- more than took any first-time AP exam, ever.

(For those of you who’ve been spared the thrill of having a high-school-age child -- AP courses are college type courses in high school, with demanding teachers and college level texts. Some colleges give college credit to kids who take AP courses and do well on the exam.)

I went to the Library of Congress last month and looked up eight college level world history texts, and I swear to god, some of them are so good tears came to my eyes. (They all weighed a ton too -- most exceeded 1,000 pages and were in glossy color.)

Each has its special strengths. Philip Adler’s World Civilizations (2nd ed. 2000) tilts toward social and cultural topics such as law and religion; Richard Bulliet’s The Earth and Its Peoples (2nd ed. 2001) tilts toward technology and the environment; Lanny Fields’s The Global Past (1998) is militant enough to remind readers that Chinese “intellectuals” from 500-230 b.c., for all their insights, “lived off the manual labor of others.”

But my favorites -- and the favorites of many AP teachers, too -- are Jerry Bentley’s Traditions and Encounters (2000; see www.mhhe.com/socscience/history/world/bentley) and Peter Stearns’s World Civilizations (3rd ed. 2000; see www.ablongman.com/stearns3e).

Better than any text I’ve seen, Bentley integrates all regions and all topics into one seamless narrative, built around cross-cultural encounters. It’s the best written text as well. (No surprise there; Bentley is editor of the World History Association’s world-class Journal of World History. Plus how can you not like a textbook whose last chapter is called “A World Without Borders,” and whose last photo is of the Greenpeace flagship?)

Stearns has the best mix of analysis and fact, and he always keeps you aware of the choices he’s making as a historian -- no small thing if you’re teaching how to think about the past. (It’s good news that he’s chair of the AP World History test development committee.)

Invisible band

The World History Association is the principal group taking world history into the academic and intellectual mainstream (www.thewha.org). It’s playing one of the most important -- and sensitive -- roles in American culture right now, yet few people outside of the historical profession have even heard of it.

It consists of nearly all the important “world historians” in the U.S. (including such giants of the historical profession as Bentley, Bulliet, Stearns, Philip Curtin, Carter Findley, and William McNeill), as well as most of the younger scholars.

Its journal, mentioned above, is a great place to watch the new world history being hammered out. Another place is at its thrice-yearly meetings (the biggest in conjunction with those of the American Historical Association).

A twice-yearly Bulletin isn’t shy about recording internecine disputes. The current issue carries the transcript of a fascinating argument between some of the profession’s elders, who want world historians to continue getting Ph.D.s the traditional way (i.e., by writing dissertations on narrow topics using primary sources), and some of the profession’s young turks, who want to train future world historians to synthesize secondary sources and grapple with broad-gauge topics.

The best single place to see the WHA’s thinking, though, is in Ross Dunn’s massive anthology The New World History: A Teacher’s Companion (2000). It covers everything, from the origins of the world history movement, to new angles on world history, to world history’s place in the 21st century intellectual firmament.

The origins are said to have a lot to do with frustration over the “Western Civ Model” of world history that dominated U.S. campuses until globalization took hold in the early 1990s.

The new angles include Bruce Mazlich’s idea of “Global History” (as distinct from world history), which would emphasize processes of economic globalization and popular movements, and de-emphasize the role of the nation-state.

And they include David Christian’s notion of “Big History,” an eons-long over- view from the beginning of time to the present designed to raise all sorts of provocative questions about our relationship to the ecosphere and the cosmos. (Psst: You can find a great syllabus of a joint Global History-Big History course at www.ic.ucsc.edu/~hist80a.)

World history’s place in the intellectual firmament is beautifully summed up by Dunn as a vitally needed middle ground between Western arrogance and total cultural relativism.

“One side celebrates the social and cultural power of the West as the drive-shaft of progress,” Dunn says. “[The other side] exhibit[s] a visceral anti-Western bias or [is] too preoccupied with essential cultural differences. . . .

“The world history movement[’s] singular contribution has been to describe a third way.”

And to insert that radical middle perspective into American culture. . . .

Future perfect

If the global past is entering American culture first and foremost through our schools, then the global future is entering first and foremost through our workplaces.

Just as Baby Boom dreamers at UCLA’s National Center for History in the Schools are instilling world history guidelines in schools across the land, so Baby Boom dreamers linked to groups like the Global Business Network on the West Coast (www.gbn.org), and the Institute for Alternative Futures on the East Coast (www.altfutures.com), are instilling “scenario planning” in businesses, governments, and nonprofits across the land.

It’s one of the quietest thought revolutions ever -- partly because its principals watched the grandstanding New Left implode, and didn’t like what they saw. But it’s one of the most substantial.

“Scenario planning” is the way many American institutions are preparing for the global future now. It’s a radical middle alternative to doggedly pursuing One Correct Path or doggedly refusing to plan ahead at all. And like many radical middle approaches, it’s more creative than either extreme.

“Scenarios are alternative descriptions or stories of how the future might unfold,” says Clem Bezold, co-founder and president of the Institute for Alternative Futures. “[They] are not predictions of the future. Rather, they encourage people to think about how to navigate successfully across the different circumstances that might be encountered. . . .

“[We] recommend [that institutions develop] four types of scenarios: a ‘business as usual’ scenario, a ‘hard times’ scenario, and two ‘structurally different’ scenarios -- usually ‘visionary’ and/or ‘transformational’ scenarios.”

Peter Schwartz, co-founder and chair of the Global Business Network, emphasizes scenarios’ potential to create better futures when he says, “scenarios present alternative images instead of extrapolating current trends from the present. Scenarios also embrace qualitative perspectives and the potential for sharp discontinuities that econometric models exclude.

“Consequently, creating scenarios requires decision-makers to question their broadest assumptions about the way the world works so they can foresee decisions that might be missed or denied. . . .

“[T]he result of scenario planning is not a more accurate picture of tomorrow but better thinking and an ongoing strategic conversation about the future.”

If you don’t believe scenario planning is being taken phenomenally seriously now, just look at the client lists of Bezold’s and Schwartz’s groups.

The IAF has helped with scenario planning at the Department of Defense, the Department of Health and Human Services (it even helped HHS think through its “Healthy People” objectives; see cover story above!), the Florida and California state governments, the American Cancer Society, etc., etc. -- plus its for-profit subsidiary has a long list of Fortune 500 clients. By some accounts, GBN’s Fortune list is even longer.

Futurist Joe Coates’s influential book 2025: Scenarios of US and Global Society (reviewed in RAM #7) was sponsored by executives from, among other places, the New York State Energy R&D Authority, the British Department of Trade and Industry, Pacific Bell, and Motorola!

Scenario planning has been gathering steam since the 1970s. But it’s really taken off in the last 10 years or so -- about the time the new-style textbooks on world history began appearing -- about the time globalization began challenging us to spread our wings to the max.

Peter Schwartz’s The Art of the Long View (expanded 1996), still considered the best introduction to scenario planning, first appeared in 1991, and the first edition of Peter Stearns’s World Civilizations -- generally considered the first of the truly comprehensive world history texts -- appeared in 1992.

Now the paradigm-ratifying books are coming out. James Ogilvy’s Creating Better Futures, an exploration of the deeper meaning(s) and political implications of scenario planning, has just appeared, as has the first quasi-popularized version of the new world history, Noel Cowen’s Global History: A Short Overview.

Merry band

Just as the World History Association is the public face of America’s world historians, so the World Future Society is the public face of America’s scenario planners and other futurists.

It’s a louder and more colorful group than the WHA. It’s more than 10 times larger, with 20,000 U.S. members; it publishes a glossy popular magazine, The Futurist; its humongous annual conference is a magnet for radicals and visionaries of all stripes (see RAM #4).

But its professional members’ bread and butter, now, is scenario planning. You could have seen that clearly at its conference last month in Philadelphia, where Clem Bezold gave a welcoming address and many of the best sessions revolved around scenario analysis (e.g., Joseph Coates’s “The Next Thousand Years,” Walter Truett Anderson et al.’s “The Future of Globalization: Wild Cards and Scenarios”).

The best single place to get a read on the WFS, though -- and a perfect futurist equivalent to Ross Dunn’s anthology on the new world history for teachers (above) -- is James Dator’s anthology Advancing Futures: Futures Studies in Higher Education (2002).

This is a book by and for professional futurists, and what you’ll find there is an almost universal commitment to the scenario planning approach to creating a better world. An early draft of Dator’s introductory essay (available online at www. futures.hawaii.edu/dator/futures/behind.html) crystallizes the new wisdom:

“Not one of the authors of the papers collected here believes in prediction . . . any more. [M]ost of the[m] insist (as I do) on the reality of ‘alternative futures’ rather than a single ‘THE future.’ We have concluded (at least I have) that the future is fundamentally plural and open -- an arena of possibilities and not of discernible inevitabilities.

“Most futurists therefore forecast a wide variety of ‘alternative futures’ [and] seek to help people (students, clients, community groups, even entire nations) invent and try to move effectively toward their ‘preferred future,’ all the time monitoring their progress towards it, and reconsidering their preference in the light of new information and experienced gained as time goes by” [emphasis added - ed.].

Mock on by

Mock on, mock on, Glendon, Gregorian: ‘tis all in vain! You may like to think we’re blinded by the present. But even as you write and speak, we’re being hot-wired to the past and future.

Okay, not all of us -- but enough. Let’s say, a majority of the 38 million of us who are or are about to become America’s executives, activists, managers, educators, artists, professionals (stat from Richard Florida, Rise of the Creative Class, 2002).

At the very least, our knowledge workers or their children are being exposed to the new thinking about the past and future.

And knowledge workers are our most important “class” now, since the economy runs on knowledge now.

Besides, it won’t be long before they fan their new perspectives out to the rest of us.

Soon, all of us will understand that we’re inextricably connected to the global past and future; and that both past and future are forever being contested.

Which behooves us to take part. To take some responsibility for interpreting the past and envisioning possible futures.

If we do less, we’ll be less than fully present.


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