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ohn Hill, Ph.D., has a four-inch-thick expanding file of
newspaper clippings, articles, and miscellany he’s been collecting
for years. They all relate to his interest in humanity’s varied
visions of the future, from optimistic to pessimistic, from apocalyptic
speculation to economic forecasting.
Beliefs about the future are like artifacts that tell us something
about the culture that holds them, says Hill, a History professor at
Immaculata. In his History of the Future honors class, which he taught
for the first time last semester, he helped students explore different
cultures’ beliefs about the future and how those beliefs have evolved.
“It’s an itch I’ve been wanting to scratch for a long time,” he said.
Hill’s class began by studying oracle bones, which ancient cultures
used to divine things such as the best time to plant crops and whether
to go to war or not. The class then read biblical prophecies in Isaiah
and Revelation, which provide warnings and insights about the end of
the world and the beginning of the new heaven and earth.
Hill continued with the Enlightenment thinker Marie Jean
Antoine Nicolas Caritat, marquis de Condorcet, whose confidence in
human reason and scientific progress led him to an optimistic view of
the future. In contrast, the Enlightenment thinker Thomas Malthus
envisioned future adversity because of unprecedented population
growth that would lead to widespread famines. Fortunately, Hill points
out, Condorcet’s optimism has proven more accurate than Malthus’
pessimism, because scientific innovations have improved agricultural
practices and boosted food production.
Even with this happy outcome, the beginning of the 20th century
saw a widespread attitude of what Hill calls “optimistic dystopianism.”
The future may present challenges, according to this view, but “that
which does not kill us makes us stronger,” as Friedrich Nietzsche said.
As his students examined varying opinions about the future, Hill
helped them understand three C’s of studying history: chronology,
causation, and consequences. Historians can sometimes have very
different ideas about the causes and consequences of historical events,
so Hill doesn’t give his students the “right” answer, but instead asks
them, “Which interpretation makes the most sense to you, and why?”
A university education is supposed to help you become less dependent
on teachers, “to make you free to find out what you want to know, to
make you free to understand the world,” he said.
As a step in this direction, students completed final research
projects and submitted them for possible presentation at a local honors
conference. Here’s just a small sample of the issues they explored.
Olivia Ross ’17 wrote an edition of a 23rd century underground
newspaper. Anne Marie DeCarolis ’17 wrote a dystopic novella about
a genderless, nameless
America in which college
students attend a secret
Wentzell ’16 used her
studies in nutrition to
speculate about how
insects, genetically modified organisms, and other foods could bolster
food supply to meet the demand of the burgeoning population.
Rosendo Villafuerte ’16 wrote a survival guide for a zombie apocalypse.
As for Hill’s own view of the future, he considers himself a
dystopic optimist, citing the optimistic economist Julian Simon, who
trusted human inventiveness to overcome any problems that the future
might bring. “Human beings are a resource, not a problem,” Hill said.
“They aren’t always cooperative, but they’re really good at thinking up
solutions to problems.”
Hill added, “Teaching school at Immaculata makes you optimistic.”
He loves seeing this generation of students develop, even if their
growth isn’t immediately apparent. “You get them a few years later and
they’re fundamentally different people,” he said. “You can start to see
students catch fire sometimes.”
Hill tells the story of playwright Bertolt Brecht’s question, “Who
built the pyramids?” It wasn’t the pharaohs, Brecht said. They never
moved a stone, but future generations gave them all the credit.
“There are a lot of people who are going to go through Immaculata
who are going to make important contributions to getting things done,
without necessarily getting their names carved in a big block of rock,”
Hill said. And that’s good reason to be optimistic about the future.
THE FUTURE CLASS
Beliefs about the future
are like artifacts that tell
us something about the
culture that holds them...