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“we Murdered Time”

July 2024
2min read

Concern over an apparent lack of interest in history on the part of today’s youth prompted William V. Shannon, a member of the editorial board of the New York Times , to write the following essay, entitled “The Death of Time,” for his newspaper this past summer. We commend it as a thoughtful analysis of the reasons behind that trend.

It is not astonishing that today’s high school students regard history as the “most irrelevant” subject and that, according to a [recent] story, … undergraduate history enrollment at leading colleges has dropped as much as a third in recent years.

Ignorance of history and disdain for history are symptomatic of the malaise of today’s youth culture and of the larger society which nurtured it. This malaise is the logical outcome of intellectual trends which began with the onset of the modern industrial age.

History is the accumulated burden of what men have done in past time. Time has always seemed the enemy of man since each of us is conscious of his own mortality. “I spit in the face of time that has transfigured me,” Yeats wrote.

When faith in a life after death began to wane with the Middle Ages, time became much more man’s preoccupation. Yet since most people lived on farms or in rural villages, they had no choice but to order their lives by nature’s ineluctable rhythms. It takes so much time for seeds to produce a crop, for vines to bear fruit, for animals to produce their young. Nature cannot be hurried.

With the coming of industrialism, life became geared to the artificial pace of technology. At first, that merely meant that if one worked in a factory, one had to adjust oneself to the rate of the machine.

Gradually, however, the ever-accelerating inhuman pace of technology has invaded every domain of life. The values of the factory—efficiency, speed, total use of available resources—have become the values of the home and of leisure. It is as if the time-and-motion studies of the efficiency expert took up their inexorable watch in each man’s soul.

It is not simply that we refuse to accept the traditional tyranny of time, that we are impatient and unwilling to wait. We set out unconsciously to kill time off. With incredible machines and extraordinary ingenuity, we began paring away the time needed to do different things.

The consequences are now all around us. It is illegal to drive slowly on an expressway; the law commands a minimum speed. Railroads and ocean liners decline while the jet plane races overhead.

The revolution in food processing and packaging in the last fifty years is an attempt to prove that no meal, no matter how ambitious, requires time or painstaking preparation. This revolution has already produced bread that tastes like tissue paper and is twice as soft, chickens and turkeys with the flavor and texture of cellulose, and hamburgers like plastic wafers. Everything’s premixed and freeze-dried and instant. It may not taste very good, but it saves time.

Television replaced books and radio as the dominant cultural force. It is often criticized for its violence and banality. But television’s most subtle debilitating influence is that it makes audiences passive and accustoms them to expect instant gratifications. There is not the investment of mental effort and of time which a serious book or a good newspaper requires. In thirty minutes, the news is narrated and commented upon or an entertainment is acted out. Then it is over. No waiting.

The children of the television age see politics as a happening, a demonstration, a dramatic confrontation. They do not realize how much time and effort are needed to alter the character and direction of a large, mature, complex society like the United States. When a single political drive like Eugene McCarthy’s campaign in 1968 fails, they yield to despair and declare that “the system” has failed. Their despair, like the apathy of the hippy and the alienation of many middle-aged people, is a response to a world of undirected technology and unnecessary speed.

Resenting death, we murdered time. Now, time vanquished, we lie exhausted alongside our victim. Almost too late, we see that what we have slain is not time but our sense of ourselves as humans. Left alone with our machines, we know not how to wait, to prepare, to discipline and deny ourselves. Therefore, we know not the rejoicing which comes when we have reaped and consummated and brought to fulfillment, all in good time.

To reject the past is to deprive today of its meaning tomorrow. To evade the limits and significance of time is to empty life of its limits and significance. It is that meaninglessness which pervades this age of instant gratification and instant results and permanent dissatisfaction.

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