It was the late 1970’s and I was in the final year of elementary school when we learned about the concepts of civilization.
We spent too much of the year learning about the various dinosaur epochs, so the early civilizations were run through rather quickly – Babylonians, Sumerians with a quick run through the Aztecs and Mayans before cramming Egypt and Rome before final exams with little thought to the significant portions of the world’s civilizations that we didn’t acknowledge at all – Europe, Asia, Australia and most of Africa.
The teacher, appropriately named Miss Work, was known for being a perfectionist choir teacher and a demanding language arts instructor. This being the case, she was a task master when confronted with large groups of children, that is to say, when she had the entire class and she was very different in smaller groups.
I thought at the time that she was not really comfortable being in front of larger groups and that she covered it off with her gruff and formidable persona.
There was a days, getting close to summer and everyone was restless and bored that not a single student had completed the homework assignment. Miss Work, determined to teach us responsibility if nothing else, made each student explain in turn why they had not done the homework and she tore apart each and every explanation until she got to me.
Having heard every excuse that I could think of torn apart, by the time she got to me, my mind was blank. So when it was my turn, I stood up and simply said, “I have no excuse.”
There was a break in the rhythm then, as Miss Work paused to digest my words; finally saying “At least you’re honest. Sit down.” and she tore into the next student, but with less vigor. Strangely, no one else followed my lead and everyone struggled to find that elusive and mythical being: the acceptable excuse.
I digress to begin with the tale of the teacher who had no compunction in stopping the school’s senior choir mid-performance to ball them out for a wrong note or mis-sung line – whether the audience was just the school or out in the community – and have the song be started over.
But it was important to set up how difficult it was to ask her challenging questions, given what a formidable authoritarian she was, while, at the same time, having been one of the best school teachers that I ever had.
I raised my hand and asked, “Are we on the rise or the fall of our civilization?”
It was one of the few times when my question was met with her gruff mocking bluster and she explained that given the level of technology and stability in the world that there would be no fall of Western civilization. That history was finished and it would be current events from here on out.
With little awareness that with enough passage of time, current events become history and that the only thing we can count on is change.
Certainly, the world is much changed since 1979, when Jonestown would have us beleive that religion more dangerous to the adherents than to non-members.
Whenever the idea presented that civilizations rise, peak and fall; I generally think that I’d rather be on the fall side – all the benefits of what came before and on the decadent side!
But that assumes that civilizations rot from the inside out – when most civilizations disappear as a result of conquest or natural disasters; the population dispersing or breaking down into decentralized groups, which may rise again in new combinations.
As long as there are people living in high density, there will be human civilizations.
But as long as we continue to allow insignificant things like appearance and baseless beliefs, such as religion and political ideology, to escalate into meaningful difference; we are locked into the endless cycle of rising and falling.
It’s when we can put aside these meaningless differences that we have a hope of creating a lasting civilization.