The Legacy of the Twentieth Century

I believe that in the long run, history will decide that the major legacy of the twentieth century has been the extension of the concept of individual rights and personal liberty to all adults, everywhere.

One hundred years ago, these concepts were barely acknowledged outside the English speaking world. Within that world, they were severely limited. In our country, for example, half the population was prima facie denied the full protection of their liberty. I am referring, of course, to women, whose legal and social status was markedly inferior to that of men, and who did not have the right to modify that status through the power of the ballot. In addition, in many states, African-Americans were second class citizens, and other minorities suffered prejudicial treatment at the hands of society, government and the law.

During this century, humanity experimented with every form of political organization conceivable, from absolute monarchy or unbounded dictatorship to participatory democracy; with every imaginable type of economic system, from laissez-faire capitalism to total state control; and with every known form of international relationship, from total war to global cooperative organizations. As the century comes to a close, there is a growing consensus that the best condition for the progress and the stability of nations is a situation where individuals are given the maximum freedom to lead their lives as they wish, are treated as equally empowered, and are governed by democratic institutions to which they have full input and access.

We saw this progress take place laboriously, with much fanfare and much resistance, in our own country. The fight for woman suffrage opened the century, and the fight for full participation by all minority groups in every aspect of our socio-economic system has occupied most of the second half of the century. Today, though much remains to be done, the root idea of our national raison-d’etre, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”, has been almost universally accepted as applying to men and women of all races, religions, and ethnic backgrounds. And we have seen these ideas take hold in all corners of the earth, in places where they were barely known or acknowledged, as this tumultuous century comes to a close.

It is impossible to overstate the historic significance of this development. Individual liberty is the key to creativity, to judgment, to responsibility, to morality. It is by far the best hope that the human race will find a way to coexist peaceably, and to continuously better its material and spiritual condition. For this development, future generations will look back on us with gratitude, and with no little amazement that we were able to distill this result out of the maelstrom of horrors that has characterized our century.

What will the new century experience as its central theme? It is my belief that its main, and critically important, historic destiny will be to extend the work of this century beyond its present limitations, to all children as well as to adults. I believe the new millennium will begin with the recognition that all but the very youngest children are whole human beings, possessed of judgment, inventiveness, self-motivation, and understanding, and deserving of all the social and political rights due to adults.

This will not be an easy transition, any more than the earlier extensions of rights were. Today, people say all the same things about children that they used to say one hundred years ago about women. But even in this century, we have lowered the age of majority from twenty-one to eighteen, without the universe falling apart. It is my prediction that by the year 2100, the age of majority will have gone way down, beyond anything most people can imagine today.

The world will come to understand how important it is to everyone that children, from an early age, gain the experience of guiding their own lives, and participating fully in the life of the community. The world will come to realize that it is not possible to have a society of confident, empowered, and wise adults who have spent their entire youth under the control of others.

Edwin Land, the inventor of instant photography and one of the most creative people ever to grace a laboratory, foresaw this next step clearly in a classic speech he delivered at MIT in 1957, well before its time. He said: “Not many undergraduates come through our present educational system retaining [the hope of greatness]. Our young people, for the most part – unless they are geniuses – after a very short time in college give up any hope of being individually great. They plan, instead, to be good. They plan to be effective. They plan to do their job. They plan to take their healthy place in the community. We might say that today it takes a genius to come out great; and a great man, a merely great man, cannot survive.

“It has become our habit, therefore, to think that the age of greatness has passed, that the age of great men is gone; that this is the day of group research; that this is the day of community progress. Yet the very essence of democracy is the absolute faith that while people must cooperate, the first function of democracy, its peculiar gift, is to develop each individual into everything that he might be. But I submit to you that when in each man the dream of personal greatness dies, democracy loses the real source of its future strength.”

I can think of no better call for empowering children. The twenty-first century will heed it.

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