What Do You Think?

I have a question that some of you might like to ponder: among the people who lived in the twentieth century, who (barring political and religious figures) will people in another hundred years remember from the twentieth century?  Whose discoveries or ideas or work is sufficiently important to represent the twentieth century and affect the twenty-first?  Or, perhaps, whose work that we now consider important is not likely to stand the test of time? This may be a negative effect, as well.

This may be one of my pedagogical ideas that is not likely to work – which is, unfortunately, true of many.  However, most of us find people interesting and I would like some of my students to get a sense of the difference an idea or theory or invention can make.  The paper is supposed to be argumentative and it certainly shouldn’t be mainly biographical, let alone hagiographic. So, I’m asking you all for suggestions.  Or, perhaps, you would like to express doubts that I will be able to prevent such essays from wandering off into he’s a nice guy or he’s a rotten guy. Further description of the course is below the fold if you are interested in the context.

This was inspired by my sense that I don’t know much about Borlaug and it wouldn’t hurt  and I could learn from papers; also, some of my students might be interested in the accomplishments of someone they might conceivably see.

I’m getting my syllabus for freshman comp & rhetoric together. The class reflects what has gone wrong with university educations in the last thirty or so years. It is the first semester class at our institution, which is strongly linked with the flagship research universities for the state, who use us as a strainer for the students who just didn’t do well enough to get in but might well have the stuff. Therefore, this class is one that meets that first semester requirement for all the other institutions in the state and therefore follows a pretty basic set of requirements. These are that we need to grade 5000 words of each student’s writing, we need to teach them to do research in the library and to master the MLA formatting of documentation, we need to constantly be on guard for plagiarism. Since the course is in argumentation, we need to spend several classes on fallacies and the form of deduction and induction. We used to have an interesting reader which included classic texts, but apparently not enough of us were assigning works from it to justify its inclusion. (I used plenty, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t short library time, MLA formatting time, etc. by doing so.)

Needless to say, when I was a freshman such courses were taught differently and, I think, in a better way. As at most open admissions colleges – especially ones with such a tight connection with a larger university – our students vary widely in ability. We get older than average returnees of high caliber and we get co-enrolled students of high caliber. Sometimes we get students that just didn’t test well or didn’t apply to another school soon enough. Of course, we also see vocational students who have to take a couple of academic courses to get their certificates and we get students who want to stay on their parents’ insurance, who want to hang out in the local bars, or who haven’t the vaguest idea what they are doing here. We also have students who are gaming the system and getting paid to attend classes they don’t intend to attend.


So, we have a wide discrepancy in skill levels; students who are widely acknowledged to have read little in high school are offered few challenging and well-written works to examine; papers are all designed to be graded in terms of grammar, organization, and argumentation as well as honesty, research, and formatting. Students coming from a good high school (and coming within the last five years) may well be acquainted with most of this and the course can act as a review; for those student, while it may not enrich their understanding by exposing them to exceptional writing, it can act as a review. Needless to say, students at other skill levels (due to time out, due to lousy high schools, or due to just a general lack of interest) are not likely to master all these skills in one semester. A very large percentage of students at the flagship schools place out of this class. The schools have chosen to teach few sections of it and to encourage as many students as possible to take the classes with us, since they are expensive classes for a research university to teach. (Their budgets are derived in part from the student/teacher ratio – obviously comp courses like this can not be taught, as say history is, in lecture rooms of 400 – 500. Their budgets also reward them more for upper division courses; obviously this is not one.)

31 thoughts on “What Do You Think?”

  1. I can understand why you want to rule out political figures–having to read two dozen essays on Hitler wouldn’t be fun–but not sure why you’ve banned religious figures. I’m not aware that the 20th century has all that many obvious candidates who are primarily religious figures, and surely most that might come up would qualify as ‘idea’ sorts.

  2. A few ideas to start things off, in no particular order of importance:

    –Friedrich Hayek, who wasn’t a political figure, but whose ideas had an impact on practical politics

    –Alan Turing, who will be remembered for his theoretical contributions to computer science, his practical contributions to WWII codebreaking, and his personal tragedy

    –Peter Drucker, for his contributions to the ideas of knowledge work and of management as a profession

    –Arthur Koestler, for his penetrating insights into the nature of Communist totalitariaism

    –George Orwell, for his tremendous intellectual honesty as well as his rejection of totalitarianism

    –George Marshall, for his contributions to the Allied victory in WWII and the reconstruction of Europe after the war

  3. Which people?

    The mass of people don’t know anything about Hitler other than he was “bad” and have barely heard of Mao or Stalin.

    If you mean who will be better known then, because of long-term impact, than are known now, that is an interesting question.

    Vint Cerf, maybe, and Tim Berners-Lee. If the Internet is the start of something big — bigger than it already is. (Not Al Gore.)

    Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce (semiconductors), maybe.

    Paul Berg (genetic engineering), maybe.

    Rick Smalley (Nanotechnology), maybe.

    I am not a science guy, and I got these names by searching for “father of semiconductors” “father of genetic engineering” “father of the internet” and “father of nanotechnology”.

    Our more science oriented friends may be able to make better guesses about 20th century science and technology figures whose contribution will come into full flower in the 21st.

  4. Thanks. Hayek was the only one of these I had on my tentative list, so I’m thankful. (Others I had were Rachel Carson, Pinker, Keynes.) Of course, these are people I don’t know much about (even the ones I listed I don’t know much about), but I think starting with a person they may get more enthusiastic about reading either one of the person’s books or a more solid one about their ideas.

    You’ve all been helpful. Hope there are more.

    Lex, you are right about Mao and Stalin. But I’m afraid politics and religion might make the loyalties more charged.

  5. This is an awesome idea for a class. People remember things best that have mutiple “hooks” that catch on multiple areas of their memory, and all but the most recacitrant students hsould find something like this fun. I assume the thesis topic can involve more than one person (the twentieth century did usher in the age of the research group, after all). I’ll have a few more ideas after searching for a bit, but the first one that comes to mind is the invention of what probably had more socail impact on the second half of the twentieth century than any other scientific breakthrough: the birth control pill.

    The interaction between the three pillars of Syntex: Russell Marker, Frank Colton, and Carl Djerassi is fascinating, especially the life of the eccentric genius Marker. A good place to start is Serendipity: Accidental Discoveries in Science.

    The next group would be the big 3 in Quantum Mechanics, Einstein, Hiesenberg, and Schrodinger. A good primer on their interactions for non-scientists with no math background is In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat. And of course Heisenberg’s War gives a lot of the social significance.

    Finally, Watson and Crick are worth a mention. Starting with The Double Helix, there should be no shortage of material on them, the problem there will be sorting out the chaff.

  6. I don’t think Rick Smalley himself claimed to be “the father of nanontech” (I only met him a few times, and he was a genuinely nice, but driven guy), and I’m not sure any of his individual discoveries will be long remembered. He’ll be another Kolthoff in 50 years, I’m afraid.

  7. “Importance” is a measure of how they affected the human race. In my mind, the most important man who ever lived was Aristotle. The second most important was Isaac Newton.

    Using that criteria, I would say the most important person, who will belong to the ages and remembered forever from the 20th Century, is Ayn Rand.

  8. Re: Soviet Russia, I think that people are going to be reading Robert Conquest for years to come.

    Of all the artists published via Samizdat in the USSR, Bulgakov is probably going to be remembered the longest, if only for “The Master and Margarita”, although “The Heart of a Dog” deserves everlasting fame, too.

  9. Speaking of writers, I think Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet” had a tremendous impact–along with other WWI writers–in portraying a more realistic picture of war than the glamorized versions that had traditionally been presented to civilians. Unfortunately, the very excellence of the book (and the move) probably contributed to the spirit of appeasement.

  10. I have another name to add to the list, one you probably have not thought of: Robert A. Heinlein, the dean of science fiction writers, 1907-1988. I attended the Heinlein Centennial Conference in Kansas City, the weekend after the 4th of July, and I contend that Heinlein had more influence on the politics and the technological development of the latter half of the 20th century than most people will ever realize, or perhaps be willing to admit. A lot of his books will still be read and commented on, at a point when a majority of the currently “important” books from “important” people with “important” ideas are entirely forgotten.

  11. Re David StJ’s comment: In Heinlein’s novels from the early 1950s, women are often portrayed in roles that went considerably beyond the conventions of the time in which H. was writing. And equality for nonwhites is taken for granted. Millions of people read these books, many of them boys in their formative years…it wouldn’t be surprising if the ideas expressed in these works had some influence on the social revolution of the 1960s.

  12. Henry Ford is arguably the most influential individual of the twentieth century. Edison is also a contender (Both of these people are somewhat emblematic as they, like most, stand upon the work of peers and those who came before). Some of their basic work occurred in the 19th century but they were alive in the 20th and the results of their efforts certainly became powerful, widespread phenomena and enabled – in a very practical way – most if not all progress; both mundane workaday and techchnical/ scientific innovation.

  13. Henry Ford should be paired with another individual who is now much less well-known: Frederick Winslow Taylor, sometimes referred to as the founder of scientific management. Taylor was a pioneer in the systematic analysis and improvement of work, ranging from shoveling sand to bricklaying to running machine tools. “Taylorism” became almost a religion in some circles, interestingly in Soviet Russia where Lenin in particular was an advocated of Taylorism as well as the closely-related “Fordism.” Taylor’s work was motivated partly by a desire to resolve conflicts between capital and labor by improving productivity and thus to provide higher wages.

    Some of Taylor’s ideas were bad ones–the rigid separation of *planning* from *doing* has been harmful–but his overall impact was probably a positive one.

    (It is interesting to note that, as manufacturing has tended to evolve away from strict Taylorism toward more employee involvement in “thinking,” many customer service operations appear to be run by Taylorist principles straight out of the original 1911 textbook)

  14. Ginny,

    It’s difficult to know who the 22nd century might actually view as major figures of the 20th century because each era judges the significance of past historical figures based on contemporary political and social fads. Christopher Columbus languished as a minor historical figure for centuries until Americans decided we needed a non-British cultural hero during the War of 1812.

    Having said that, I would guess that the early 22nd century will be dominated by an information economy and that they will view the development of the personal computer and the internet (because only a decade separated the two, in the popular imagination they will be simultaneous.) Figures mentioned above will play a prominent role. I predict, however, that large numbers of people will believe that Bill Gates invented both the internet and the personal computer.

    In medicine, the 22nd century will view the body as an information system which requires programming and debugging. People working rather anonymously now to apply information theory to problems in immunology and oncology will be considered in retrospect as the pivotal figures in medicine.

  15. Of 20th century philosophers, I suspect the one most likely to be read for providing fresh and challenging insights a century from now, rather than for essentially historical reasons (i.e. his work was important to 20th century thinkers, so one should read it to understand 20th century thought) is Wittgenstein. Like Plato, his work persistently challenges interpretation (see Anat Biletzki’s book (Over)Interpreting Wittgenstein)), and his thought successfully resists categorization–even the category “Wittgensteinian” appears too restrictive when applied to Wittgenstein, just as “Platonism” is too restrictive when applied to Plato.

    This does not mean Wittgenstein will be a household name in a century, or even the cult figure he is today. Indeed, one rather hopes his cult status will wither away. But those serious about philosophy and questions of meaning will continue to read and puzzle over Wittgenstein.

  16. Alexander Fleming–discover of penicillin. Made it possible for families to believe with reasonable probability that their children would survive into adulthood, quite likely changing the whole perception of life and death throughout society.

    Jonas Salk–creator of the polio vaccine, which eliminated one of the last great epidemic diseases.

    John Rock–inventor of the birth control pill, with its obvious great social consequences. (If you use this one for the class, check out the Loretta Lynn song)

  17. David Foster- John Rock wa a minor figure in the birth of birth control – he was the MD who ran the first clinical study site. The three I named above are the inventors, from Marker’s synthesis of progesterone from mare’s urine, to Colton and Djerassi’s work with that and hormones deevelped from Mexican yams. Rock recruited his patients for the clincal trial, but it could have been any MD who did that.

  18. JJ…oh. Somehow I missed that part of your comment.

    Does raise the interesting question of how group efforts should fit in this format. I think that both the microprocessor and the Internet should properly be credited to at least 3-4 people in each case.

  19. Friedman and Greenspan who showed how a responsible monetary policy can bring prosperity. In the years before F & G, economic growth was limited by growth in the supply of gold; after F & G economic growth determined the growth of the money supply.

    Universal prosperity brings universal health and good humors. Universal health and good humors dissolve human misery and misery’s handmaidens – tyranny, religion and crackpot economic, racial and conservation theories.

    If the future is a prosperous utopia, F & G will be remembered.
    If it becomes a time of universal misery, as is the case of all human history except the last 100 years, then Al Gore will praised as the man who ended a Century of Unbridled Excess.

  20. Aerospace went from nothing to a very developed area in the twentieth century, so it’s likely figures from that field will be remembered. Good choices would be the Wright brothers and Neil Armstrong.

    Biology saw significant development – I second the nomination of Watson and Crick.

    Hat tips are deserved by television and radio. John Wayne is a possibility. Maybe H.G. Wells for the War of the Worlds broadcast.

    Internet and computer figures are also a natural choice. I think Bill Gates will be the big one we remember, regardless of how foundational his role was or wasn’t.

  21. In addition to the Wright Brothers, Robert Goddard, the pioneer of rocketry, is going to be remembered for years to come.

    I’d pair Yuri Gagarin and Neil Armstrong together to highlight the Cold War conflict that drove much of the space race. Humans are lazy and short-sighted, and without the impetus of the Cold War, I think we’d still be dreaming about the moon.

  22. I thought seriously about including Yuri Gagarin above, but I’m not sure he’ll be remembered as significant… like Michael Collins (the Apollo 11 astronaut who didn’t land on the moon) I suspect he’ll be thought of as a secondary figure. I hope he’s remembered as truly significant, but I don’t think it’ll play out that way. Goddard is a great pick, though — I can’t believe I left him out!

    Certain key political figures will be remembered from the great conflicts of our time — Hitler, Stalin, Reagan, Kennedy, and so on.

    In terms of political-religious reformers, Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi both deserve a spot on the list.

    For musicians, it’s hard to tell what tastes future generations will hold. I suspect Elvis and the cult of personality surrounding him will get at least an honorable mention years down the line.

  23. Jonathan’s post above (the Russian color photographs) makes me think of one more possibility–George Eastman, who did so much to bring photography to a broad audience and set of participants.

  24. Partially in response to Bill Millan above; twentieth century philosophers;

    I find it interesting that the most persuasive names on this list are technology or mass/pop-culture related; surveying the centuries there is almost always an important philosopher to be named, and given the explosion of literature and mass awareness of philosophy one might expect that to be certainly true of the 20th.

    Sadly, I doubt that’s the case; there were important, intelligent philosophers in the past century, Wittgenstein and Rand among them. But how much progress was made philosophically is another matter. Rand especially will be taken more seriously as the personality cult dies off and/or is marginalized, but her social impact will always outweigh her philosophical importance. On the other hand, Foucault, Derrida, etc will decrease in philosophical importance, as will, hopefully, their trickle-down and bowdlerized social impact.

    So who will be remembered? Fewer than will be forgotten. Rand, Adorno and Horkheimer, and -maybe- the French Deconstructionists (as a group). Everyone else on the list will actually have to have -done- something–like Djerassi and company, or the founders of private-enterprise space travel.

  25. How about some film people–directors, actors, screenwriters? Movies were a definitive art form of the 20th century, and clearly had an enormous influence on the zeitgeist.

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