The last few centuries are widely studied in every history curriculum. In fact, it would be fair to argue that this is the most overly represented time scale in the collective consciousness. That is a blessing and a curse for an overview like this book. The 18th – 20th centuries were so fast-paced, and so well memorialized, that it would be impossible to stuff a thorough chronology into one chapter. On the other hand, you are already so familiar with George Washington and Adolf Hitler that I won’t need to waste time introducing them. This chapter takes a step back from most history books to analyze the broadest of trends. Rather than rehashing the world wars battle by battle, I will tackle the more abstract theses of why this chapter had to climax in such a catastrophe, and what the world learned from it.
The chapter is organized around the three predominant threads of “modern” history: the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and the world wars. Enlightened philosophy rejected the divine right of kings and replaced it with popular sovereignty. The emphasis was on class or national rights in the 18th – 19th centuries and individual rights after WWII.
In the Industrial Revolution, engines powered by fossil fuels greatly multiplied the speed and scale of labor. Machines made better machines. Some of these machines were designed to automate or accelerate routine operations, a branch of technology that led directly to computers. Industry has progressed exponentially, and it has radically affected all walks of life in unanticipated ways.
The final section examines those changes from the perspective of ordinary people. From urbanization to universal human rights and that head-spinning decade of the 1960s, new lifestyles changed the world from the ground up. This was the period when “we the people” stole the show.
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- The closer we get to the present, the more challenging but important it is for me to remain objective and moderate. I try as much as possible to transcend a “good guys vs. bad guys” presentation of history and to avoid unnecessary value judgments. As you read the chapter, just keep an eye out for that and make sure that I am addressing the full complexity of conflict. ↩
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