Great Learning​—Yet Little Change

“In spite of the recent triumphs of science, men haven’t changed much in the last two thousand years; and in consequence we must still try to learn from history.”​Kenneth Clark, Civilisation—​A Personal View.

THERE have certainly been some remarkable advances in science over the centuries. Time magazine says that these have “given millions of us the highest standard of living in history.” Some of the greatest advances have been in the field of medicine. In medieval times “medicine was crude and brutal,” says historian Zoé Oldenbourg. “A doctor could kill as easily as cure.”

Not Always Willing to Learn

People have not always been willing to learn. In the late 19th century, for example, many doctors ignored compelling evidence that they themselves were somehow transmitting disease among their patients. So they stuck to dangerous practices and refused to wash their hands before moving from one patient to another.

Still, science and technology continued to advance. Logically then, from past experiences humans should have learned how to make the world a happier, safer place. But that is not how things have worked out.

Consider Europe in the 17th century. That period was described as an age of enlightenment and reason. Yet, the fact remains that “with all its outpourings of genius in art and science,” says Kenneth Clark, “there were still senseless persecutions and brutal wars waged with unparalleled cruelty.”

In our time there is still a reluctance to learn from the past in order to avoid its mistakes. As a consequence, our very existence on this planet appears to be under threat. Writer Joseph Needham concluded that the situation has become so dangerous that ‘all we can now do is hope and pray that maniacs will not release upon mankind powers that could extinguish all life on earth.’

Why is it that despite all man’s genius and learning, we are still mired in a world filled with violence and brutality? Will this ever change? The next two articles will consider these questions.

[Picture Credit Lines on page 3]

COVER: WWI cannons: U.S. National Archives photo; WWII Holocaust victims: Robert A. Schmuhl, courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives

Pages 2 and 3: B-17 bomber: USAF photo; woman: Instituto Municipal de Historia, Barcelona; refugees: UN PHOTO 186797/J. Isaac; 23 kiloton explosion: U.S. Department of Energy photograph