Society in Transition: Problems of a Changing Age

Society in Transition: Problems of a Changing Age

Society in Transition: Problems of a Changing Age

Society in Transition: Problems of a Changing Age

Excerpt

Modern society, especially American society, is in one of the major transitional periods in human experience. There have been only three previous eras of cultural transformation at all comparable to that of the present day. The first of these was what we often call "the dawn of history," namely, the transition from tribal society and Stone Age culture to ancient Oriental civilization between about 7000 B.C. and 3000 B.C. Next came the breakup of ancient pagan civilization, with the decline of the Roman Empire and the rise of medieval culture between the reigns of Diocletian and Charlemagne. Then, roughly between the age of Columbus and the era of Napoleon Bonaparte, medieval civilization was replaced by typically modern institutions, consisting of the national state, capitalism, industrialism, liberalism, religious disunity, and the humanistic curriculum in education. Today modern culture and institutions are undergoing much the same strains and stresses that medieval institutions passed through after 1500. Our institutions are already being either rapidly supplanted or readjusted to new conditions, though we are as yet only in the initial stages of the vast transformation through which modern culture is bound to pass before it can stabilize itself in a new phase of cultural evolution.

While our era of social transition bears a broad general resemblance to earlier periods of cultural transformation, certain contrasts are outstanding. Because of the complex and dynamic character of our urban and industrial world culture, the tempo of transition is bound to be far more rapid than it was in any preceding epoch of world change. Furthermore, our age faces more sharply drawn and more dramatic alternatives than ever confronted those peoples who lived through earlier transitional ages. Either a literal material utopia or a reversion to barbarism and chaos inevitably lies ahead of us. Today our machines and other aspects of our material civilization have far outrun our institutions and nonmaterial culture. If we are able to bring our institutions up to date, overtake our machines, and put the latter directly to work in the service of mankind, we cannot very well avoid attaining a material utopia. This will provide us with ample leisure and security to build up more creditable and impressive forms of human achievement on the firm foundation of our material prosperity. If, however, our machines continue greatly to outdistance our institutions, we face the prospect of ever more severe economic depressions, the growth of totali-

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