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Busting the myth of eternal progress

April 14, 2009


David Noble.

David Noble, a University professor of American studies and history, retires in May after 56 years of stirring up history.
Photo: Diana Watters

David Noble dissected the American dream

By Deane Morrison

As a boy, David Noble delivered milk to Albert Einstein's house in Princeton, so perhaps it's no wonder he grew up fascinated by time and space. And Noble's ideas, like Einstein's, ran counter to conventional wisdom.

But for Noble, a University professor of American studies and history, the concepts of time and space apply to human history, rather than the cosmos. He has labored to bring ideas about the future down to earth by countering the notion of perpetual economic progress.

He has also done a wicked job of impersonating historical figures, much to the benefit and delight of his students. After 56 years of teaching, he still adores it, but this May he will finally retire.

"I'm going to miss teaching immensely," says Noble. "I'm enjoying my two classes this spring, one called "Culture Wars" and the other an honors class on Mark Twain."

Noble and his many friends will celebrate his career at 1 p.m. Saturday, April 18, in the McNamara Alumni Center on the Minneapolis campus. The event includes a panel discussion of his work by four former students.

Timeless ideas

The kernel of Noble's message is that Western culture implicitly espouses an idea that economic progress is inevitable and that, in a sense, history will end when the period of war and other strife culminates in an era of stability dominated by American-style free market capitalism.

Such an outlook on the world may have started as far back as 400 B.C., in the urban middle-class Greeks of Plato's generation, Noble says.

"A lot of figures after the 1989 Soviet collapse declared we're at the end of history. They thought American-style free-market capitalism would be the world system, with nothing beyond. That it would take over the world."

"They imagined a dramatic distinction between 'timeful culture' and 'timeless nature,'" he says. "Timeful culture" means the messy era, and "timeless nature" refers to an era of stability that follows after everything gets sorted out. Therefore, if society could escape the one era and enter the other, the people living in that world would essentially have it made.

But is humanity actually headed toward any ultimate state? Noble is skeptical.

He wrote his dissertation on the Progressive Period (1890 through the end of World War I), and noted how many intellectuals of the time despaired when a war that was supposed to lead to a period of order and simplicity failed so utterly to do so.

"I had no idea it was part of a 2,000-year-old narrative," he says. "It got lost in the Dark Ages, but during the Renaissance, urban middle-class Europeans rediscovered the world of Plato, and there were prophecies that 'this generation' will leave timeful culture and get to timeless nature." And, he says, people continue to make prophecies about such a coming state of order.

"People think the global marketplace will be a timeless space," he says, explaining that a timeless space is one with no limits. "The concept of timeless space implies that the United States is eternal. Or, if you live in England, that England is eternal. Or France. That we're at the end of history.

"A lot of figures after the 1989 Soviet collapse declared we're at the end of history. They thought American-style free-market capitalism would be the world system, with nothing beyond. That it would take over the world."

That is wishful thinking, Noble says.

"The irony is, modern [Western] people see themselves as rational and contrast themselves with traditional cultures that have no belief in inevitable progress. We describe them as living in a fantasy world.

"But current American Indian writers are critical of the fantasies of the modern white world." In other words, the tables are turning.

If anyone doubts that such a dream of inevitable economic progress—call it the American Dream or even the world dream, Noble says—exists, he points out that the "dominant culture" reacts with anger to ecologists or anyone else who questions the commitment to perpetual progress.

"It crosses party lines," Noble says. "You can't be the leader of either major party if you don't believe the next generation will always do better."

What we need now is to work out another major narrative of humanity, Noble says. But he sees many undergraduates who recognize the world's problems, "but can't imagine their lives will have any meaning if they cease believing in the American and world dream of each new generation being better off. I see our commitment to rapid changes keeping the world terribly unstable."

History of everybody

Noble also helped wrest U.S. history from the grip of "the dominant Anglo-Protestant culture."

He notes that in the 1950s, U.S. history said nothing about Catholics, Jews, women, American Indians, African Americans, and so on, and there was "a gentleman's agreement" that no one from these groups could teach U.S. history because it was too sacred. Even into the mid-1960s, battles over teaching U.S. history from those perspectives raged in academia, including the University of Minnesota, he says.

It wasn't until 1977 that The Free and the Unfree, the first multicultural history of the United States, was published. Written by Noble and Peter Carroll, it was rejected by several publishers before being picked up by Penguin.

"They got it into markets in Europe and Africa, where it did quite well," Noble notes.

And in case you're wondering what Einstein was really like, Noble got a glimpse when his German-born mother came along on a milk run.

"Einstein came out, and she talked to him in German," Noble recalls. "He was very polite, and sustained a rather extended conversation."