Sense of History: an unfinished draft of an undergraduate history textbook by Robert C. Binkley, 1939-40. This transcription is not yet fully corrected.
Table of Contents
These words are addressed primarily to Americans whose twentieth birthday falls somewhere in the 1940’s.
According to mortality statistics, you have a life expectancy of about forty-five more years. If you had $17,000 today and spent one dollar a day, it would just last you your expected life.
Only a few of you will see the year 2000; most of you will see the year 1975. Your lives will be lived, for the most part, in a period that will be known as the middle of the twentieth century.
Of the things you will do in these coming years, a certain proportion will be done unreflectively, out of impulse or habit, and a certain proportion under compulsion, there being nothing else to do. Some things you will do reflectively, after taking thought. When you take thought in deciding what you will do, you are trying to foresee the future and to figure out what will happen if you do one thing rather than another. A person who would not attempt to make such calculations would be only an animal; a person who could make them with absolute accuracy would be a prophet, a seer. We are neither; we make the best guesses we can.
Were it not for the future, we might neglect the past. If we could really look forward we might not need to look backward. But our eyes are set in such a fashion that we can see the future only as it is mirrored in the past. We are like a driver backing his car along a dark road; the headlights show the road we have passed, not the road we are moving into. The past we can see, but not control; the future we can in some measure control, but not see.
The unit of time which nature sets for each of us is a lifetime. This is not the same for each of us, but all of us compute the years of our youth looking backwards, and the prospects of old age looking forward, by the same rough measure: the lifetime of a man.
A man who has reached the age of seventy-five years has lived through about one percent of the whole period of civilization in the world, and about two percent of its recorded history. He is half as old as the Constitution of the United States.
[p.002] In our life experience we take account of a shorter time unit; we call it our "youth", our "middle age," and our "old age." These periods are not measured by any exact span, but correspond rather to three successive human situations. In youth we are dependent on parents; in middle age children are dependent on us; in old age the children have become adults and left our homes. Each of these periods may be called a generation. Its length is twenty or thirty years. The sixty-year-olds think the forty-year-olds are young: the forty-year-olds think the twenty-year-olds are young. They belong to different generations.
People do a good deal of planning in terms of this kind of a period of time. One who buys a house under a long-term mortgage may look forward some twenty years, for the payments he contracts to make will run for that period. A person who trains himself for a profession will expect to reach his place in it in somewhat less time; one who marries and has children will expect to see them reach maturity and leave home in somewhat more time. When you think in terms of such a future you realize the existence of a problem: how much will things change? What kinds of things will change and what kinds remain the same? If you try to consult your own experience on such tempos of change, your experience will come to you too late, and you will only know when you are old what you should have done when you were young.