Choice, agency and individuality came to the forefront of modern American culture during the late twentieth century, according to former Princeton University professor Daniel Rodgers.
On Tuesday afternoon, Rodgers spoke to approximately 30 members of the Yale community in Sterling Memorial Library as part of the International Security Studies’ Distinguished Speaker Series. An influential historian and author of the book “Age of Fracture,” Rodgers explained the emergence of a powerful free market in which rationality was championed and also commented on how the new intellectual “age of fracture” has influenced the language of politicians and even interpersonal relationships.
Technology has played a key role in creating this fragmented social reality, Rodgers said.
“We’re wired into our smartphones … We can shop at home, get ourselves educated at home,” he said. “Public schools will be unnecessary. If we need a peer group for our children, we can create one over the web … We don’t need society. We can each go on our choosing way — with technology.”
Since the late twentieth century, America’s sense of solidarity has been pushed aside, Rodgers said. While the feminist movement initially entered the spotlight with its constituents united by a “we shall not be moved, we shall overcome” mindset, for example, Rodgers said the movement fell short of its goals because of internal differences between women. Politically and morally conservative women, liberal women and women of different races and religions were all jostling for the microphone, he said.
Rodgers said recently, there have been two “big bangs”: the events of Sept. 11, 2001 — after which America experienced a wave of patriotism — and the economic crisis of 2008. For a moment, Rodgers said it seemed as though American solidarity had been restored. In the realm of language, presidential speechwriters began using the word “we” once more, Rodgers added, citing Michael Gerson, chief speechwriter for former President George W. Bush, as an example.
“Language wrote itself into politics, with a new emphasis on the small, personal and fragmentary,” he said.
According to Rodgers, one of the greatest inventions of mankind is the market, which he called a “magical realm” where desires collide with external circumstances.
Rationality became the denominator of economic decisions and transactions, which theoretically should add up to a world with minimal inefficiency, he said.
“But rationality isn’t so rational in the context of life,” said Rodgers, adding that this is one of the ironies of the “Age of Fracture.”
Rodgers concluded his talk by commenting on the role teachers play in working against the fragmentary nature of society. Teachers can construct the way education is received, he said. Though Rodgers said a college education is currently a race to answer questions correctly and build a resume for the job market, he said relationships should be forged in the classroom in the same way that they are in Glee Club or lacrosse practice.
Most of the audience members had read Rodger’s book, and many were professors or graduate students in the International Security Studies program.
The Director of the International Security Studies program, Adam Tooze, said he thought the talk gave a compelling summary of Rodgers’ book.
“Professor Rodgers has been absolutely central to cultural and intellectual history for the past several decades,” said history professor Jenifer Van Vleck. “This book in particular really shows how the tools of historical analysis can illuminate not only the past but also our present.”
Tommy Sheppard GRD ’14 and Kate Geoghegan GRD ’14, students in the International Security Studies program, said they agreed with Rodgers that the language of individualism has become more prominent in recent years.
“Age of Fracture” was published in 2011.