Daniel T. Rodgers, the Henry Charles Lea Professor of history, Emeritus at Princeton gave a lecture at Wake Forest on Oct. 17 through the Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar Program.
Entitled “Age of Fracture: The Transformation of Ideas and Society in Modern America,” this lecture touched on a number of social, political and economic topics that are frequently debated in our social sphere, though seldom debated well. This lecture struck me as unique in that it provided less of an argument regarding any specific topic but more a description of a general shift in public worldview. Perhaps because I am chiefly a student of science, I found myself unaccustomed to this conversation.
As the title of this lecture and that of Rodgers’ Bancroft Prize-winning book on the same subject suggests, he is most interested in the theme of fracture in our intellectual history as a country through recent decades up to our present sphere.
Rodgers puts forward three categories in which this fracture, a departure from the old involving further cultural subdivision, can be seen. He outlines the huge change in economic theory through the crisis years of the 1970s. It was a change not just of the economy, but of the type of thought exercised in order to understand it and make reliable predictions. Models changed by necessity and microeconomics were developed as macroeconomics was pushed backward in economics textbooks.
Everything now was a field of costs and incentives. With this change came the end of a high wage manufacturing economy and the end of highly unionized enterprises.
Our idea of power also very much changed; institutional power once held a greater weight. Kids were born into classes and pre-existing social structures.
But as our current world pushed closer, social scientists began seeing more subtle forms of power: power found in discourse, language and symbols. Talk of society’s mass structures like class or capitalism fell out of the debate. Power is now seen everywhere but nowhere too tangible.
The aftermath of this fracture is also seen in America’s many social movements. In the pursuit of race and gender equality, the groups that used to unite people towards a common good broke into smaller and more volatile pieces.
For example, women once felt part of a collective struggle for equal rights that has now been fragmented. As the biggest feminist cases have been heard, women broke into the many niches of our society without this sense of common cause.
Because of this same phenomenon, politics have targeted the individual, making the polls a game of personal choice, rather than appealing to the good of the community.
Partisan politics has always been this potentially divisive; however, modern fragmentation is no longer a disagreement upon a solution to a commonly known problem. People now carry vastly distinct “bundles of facts” to support their view; they see different problems.
The lecture’s underlay reminded me very much of a quote from Christopher Hitchens’ analysis of George Orwell’s work. Orwell is said to illustrate “that views do not really count; that it matters not what you think, but how you think.” If the methods that govern someone’s psychology shift, his or her range of possible thoughts changes incredibly.
Applied in a bigger context, when a society’s worldview changes, the substance of its people and what they are capable of changes even more. There recently has been a change in the images in our heads of society, culture and politics; this is very much the tone of Rodgers’ argument.
Large material change in our own systems begins with shifts in our ideas and our understanding of what surrounds us.