My Millennium Bug
have become infected with a bug related to the millennium, and it's
not a healthy thing. What I have is a slight touch of the cynicism
virus. It won't kill me but it makes me quite uncomfortable, since
it virtually amounts to my quarantining myself from everybody else.
I mean all those who are making so much noise about it all.
You see, I think that this millennium stuff is mostly a crock. People--
egged on by the media, who always need some nonsense to talk about, and
by the promoters and con artists who hope to make money or otherwise
advance their personal causes-- have again been sold a bill of goods.
They believe that crossing the boundary from this century to the next
will bring us all great relief, like driving under the Washington beltway
and escaping into Virginia, or eating a first meal after a fast followed
by a colonoscopy. They believe that certain things, perceptible and even
tangible, will change for the better.
There is no rational basis for these expectations. All the physical
laws will maintain their indifference to the effects, good or bad, which
they produce. We will have rain and sun, storm and calm, night and day,
all in about the same proportions in the new century as in the old. Nor
will the moon be perturbed in her orb or the Earth cease its turning.
When the seasons change everybody knows it. When the millennium changes,
but for the calendar and the TV, nobody would know it. As for us humans,
what foolish pundit, even from among the foremost members of the Foolish
Pundits Fraternity, would be so greatly foolish as to predict
that our own nature would be anything more or less than what history
has shown it to be? No, there is no argument at hand to justify the excitement.
All the brouhaha over the new millennium is a lot of sound and fury signifying
The fact that the first digit in the number used to designate the year
is about to change from a "1" to a "2" is purely,
should I say, accidental? Well maybe not, not exactly anyway. But it
is a manmade event as opposed to a natural event or something mandated
by God. It is an artifact that comes from our having ten fingers. Our
Stone Age forebears counted with their fingers, so today we have ten
as the base of our number system. If our ancestors had decided to use
only one hand for counting, reserving the other to hold a club, then
we would be counting by five's, and what we call the number "2,000" would
be written "3,100," not a particularly special-looking number,
and no cause to make a big fuss. If, on the other hand, we had chosen
to do as some tribes did, and used all fingers and all toes, then it
would be written even more differently. If this puzzles you consult any
fifth grader after he has covered different systems of numeration in
his math class. The point is that neither decisions made by Stone Age
man, even if decided by a democratic vote, nor the way we modern, high-tech
people choose to write our numbers, can hardly be expected to change
the world one way or the other.
I wish that it were different. I wish that great things could come from
changing that "1" to a "2." Let me mention schools.
Suppose someone asked me, "What would you like to see our schools
become in the 21st century? My answer would be that I would wish that
in the 21st century our schools would become more like they were in the
19th century. I don't know who my questioner might be, but he might be
a chauvinistic modernist who believes that everything old is bad and
everything new is good. Then he would be shocked and appalled, and challenge
me to explain this outrageous thing I had said. I would tell him to imagine
a schoolroom, adequately heated in winter and even cooled in summer,
that had a good blackboard with plenty of chalk, and a teacher to go
with it. The teacher wasn't brilliant, but was reasonably well qualified,
of good character, honest, and conscientious. All her students had the
textbooks they needed. The students themselves came from stable families,
were fairly well disciplined and, if not straining at the leash, were
at least willing to learn. Now, I would ask, what else is needed before
learning can begin to occur?
The answer has to be: nothing. There are some things that could be added
of course. Choral, band, cheer leading, basket weaving, shop, and so
on. And as the reader will surely have discerned for himself, I'm not
literally advocating a return to the one-room school with a pot-bellied
stove. But a basic 19th-century school that brooked no nonsense and taught
the basics would in many ways be better than that which we will probably
have in the glorious 21st century.
I would certainly hope for some healthy backtracking, in education and
in other things. But while I'm under the spell of this cynicism bug it's
hard for me to see that we'll get it. Everybody is so enthralled with
that new "2," that we will all soon be writing, that they're
blind to all the good things that we've had under the reign of the "1." I
don't know for sure, but it just might have been better for our generation
if the cave man had kept his club clutched in one hand when he was doing