Professor Yasmin Chan Feldman scowled and handled the stack of papers as if they were mildly toxic. It was a conscious anachronism; the historian printed them because she was proud of being both old and old-fashioned.
“I’ll protect your anonymity,” she told her students tartly, “merely to save most of you from embarrassment. Your papers are surprisingly thorough only in that no major mistake seems to have escaped you as a group.” Her audience winced, but knew that the course on the collapse of Western Civilisation was notoriously demanding.
The professor was dressed in monotogs, of course, but ever in black and it called attention to her starkly cropped white hair. As she moved her eyes across the screen she looked into the faces of her students as surely as if they sat together in one room, yet they were spread around the globe and on sat-stations and the nearer colopods. Their expressions ranged from disappointed to horrified, but they were equally polite and well-dressed for the seminar.
The students were always well-groomed: forty years ago educators had chosen wisely to upgrade from the audio sessions that were inexpensively spacecast in real time, knowing that complete visibility paid off in diligence and quality. Now, seen by their teacher and classmates, care was taken by students (especially there in the elite Malmö University) and their attentiveness reflected in their studies off-screen. Within a decade even the better second-string universities of, say Gabarone or Harvard, used the modern equipment.
She sniffed as if some bad smell wafted through the lecture module. “You disappointed me by using only secondary sources, with one exception that I shall come to momentarily. I expected more primary source-work,” she complained. “Twenty years ago even schoolchildren started using Google217’s YouTime feature to eavesdrop on historical conversations, yet presumably you are too busy or lazy so all I get is regurgitated historians. Oy veh!” It was still early in the course, she thought to herself; they had time to improve.
Her students tried to look away in embarrassment while she crossed her legs and leaned closer to the sensor.
“For we modern people, the collapse of Western Civilisation happened as long ago as if our subjects looked back 500 years to the birth of the Renaissance,” she began. “Their historical interpreters were distracted by exciting old wars and plagues, just as we tend to be misled by the bloodshed leading to the Great Retraction in the mid-21st Century. It made the Fall of Rome resemble a head-cold, especially given the North American exterminations. But such distractions a true historian seeks to avoid or even to dispel.”
“Mr. Huang-san McCarthy, why did the collapse occur?” she asked quite unexpectedly. The students feared her surprise assaults, and she launched them often.
“Um, the West lost religious faith, then lost values, then fragmentation began the collapse,” he replied bravely. “Along with loss of community, I mean.”
“Good so far as it goes,” the professor replied and the young man smiled. “Half of an answer gets you half points,” she added harshly and his spirits plummeted. No one took her classes for easy grades.
“And you? Ms. Inga Vigazapataram?” she demanded. The dark-skinned blonde hesitated momentarily.
“Western fiscal bankruptcy versus Asian and African emerging markets,” the student suggested.
“You are as right as Mr. McCarthy so you get the same low score,” snapped the teacher. “However I commend you for using a single primary source in your paper, cyber-dropping on that meeting of the US Central Bank in 2021. They were sincere but they were still talking rubbish.” The young woman’s face fell even further.
“I’ll make it easier,” the professor conceded. “Who can give me a potted history of Western fragmentation?” She glanced at the student roster: “Ms. Carlotta Abasingame?”
The chubby young black woman rose from her seat somewhere further away than two years of continuous travel. She clutched her noticon and spoke with self-assured poise.
“Cohesion and Western Civilisation extended with the Roman Empire and then the Catholic Church. Judeo-Christian values spread further by exploration, sea-trade and colonisation,” she began. “Then came the Great Paradox.”
“Indeed,” Professor Chan Feldman interrupted. “We come to that shortly when we read Lopez and Matsushita. Sorry, Carlotta, please explain the paradox.”
The student hesitated; clearly on less familiar ground she nevertheless drew a deep breath and continued.
“When too many people are united they try to subdivide themselves for any reason they can find. It seems to be genetic,” she added but the teacher interrupted her a second time.
“Sorry. Sociogeneticists call that Hergesheimer’s Paradigm and we discuss it in three weeks,” the professor explained. “It’s a legacy of ancient hunter-gatherer survival behaviour. Please continue.”
“Western people sought to trade homogeneity for smaller communities, first by emphasizing their pre-Latin languages and proto-nationalism,” the student explained, “then technology hastened the process with Gutenberg’s printing-press and books in indigenous languages. It fed the Reformation; another reaction against homogeneity, both in community-selected breakaway religious movements and their Protestant belief in personal feedback from God which made the orthodox religious structure seem unnecessary.”
The professor broke into a grin: “Carlotta, have you been reading Saint Seungsam Kim?” The young woman nodded bashfully.
Any student who read beyond the assignment file, thought the teacher, especially Church metahistorians of three centuries back, definitely showed academic promise. “Yes,” her professor encouraged, “what old historians called nationalism was part of a bigger and deeper process. Good for you. Go get ‘em, girl!”
The student broke into a broad smile. “I was going to say that,” she added. “The desire for human division showed up in nationalism, religious reformation and atheism, technology, politics and media. Media markets fragmented endlessly until Restructuring started in the early modern era, in the late 23rd Century.” As she sat down some other students applauded her.
“Thanks, Carlotta. There is an important distinction here,” the elderly teacher explained. “Some of the retreat from homogeneity is genetically-driven, and we see that in nationalism and the growth of religious cults, as well as in the Mediterranean Wars that ended the European Union in 2023. But, as with Gutenberg, sometimes technology hastens the same fragmentation unintentionally but people seize it eagerly.”
“By the end of even the 20th Century, fragmentation was too far along to be turned back,” she said. The students listened intently and pointed their noticons closer to the transmitters.
“Trade and tech-transfer created the Industrial Revolution and globalisation,” she continued. “The incentive for money temporarily overwhelmed the human desire to separate into ever-smaller groups but it happened automatically. The first economist, Adam Smith, described it as the Division of Labour, showing that manufacturers were many thousand times more productive if they divided their work into specialised tasks. He lived 300 years before the Retraction and never saw the down-side. Then what happened?”
An American student raised his hand and the teacher glanced surreptitiously at the roster; it was early and she didn’t yet know all of the students by name. His was Sam Goodman; she was glad to see more North American students overcoming their deprived backgrounds.
“It’s the Great Paradox, again,” replied the freckle-faced lad, who sat down as rapidly as he had risen.
“Excellent, Mister Goodman, brevity is the soul of wit,” she replied. “This is a key point in Unitatis atque Distribuendi, or Saint Seungsam Kim’s seminal work On Unity and Division. The temporal world plays endless tug-of-war between unification and separation, from individuals in families to economic systems and civilisations, until of course, true and permanent unification comes in God. The Holy Trinity is both united and divided into three. Seungsam says it’s an intentional clue pointing to the thinking and the handiwork of the divine; every paradox is a clue.”
“Western economics grew so complicated and fractured, in every sector, that they lost the words with which to talk to one another,” she continued. “Chemical engineers could no longer communicate with mechanical engineers, much less with laymen. People misused scientific terms because they knew no better, while what they called politicians twisted every word they had. Meanwhile scientists spoke of humanity and culture as if they could be measured in a test-tube, and institutions came to value only what they could count.”
“It was indeed the Great Paradox,” she explained. “While people became specialised and utterly dependent on one another from material necessity, by technology and instinct they formed into tighter and more exclusive groups and developed their own jargon, initially to describe details that mattered only to themselves and later to exclude outsiders and protect their sources of income or power. As meaningful communication stopped, so did their shared values. Alive inside of Time we humans undo our own efforts; we’re always vying to combine and separate.”
Goodman raised his hand unexpectedly; he didn’t seem like a talker. “And besides fragmenting their cultural cohesion, it let in ideology. People cut off from the bigger world retreated into socio-political fantasies and make-believe.” The professor decided to watch this young man’s progress over weeks ahead.
“Indeed!” she exclaimed. “This is how the late Cardinal Wong, and Rabbi O’Leary at Lunae Universitate, explained the rise of the Progressive Heresy. It went from subdivision to miscommunication, to socio-economically politicised sects based on misunderstanding our human nature, to wishful thinking and self-deception. Marxist ideology murdered dozens of millions; extremist environmentalism squandered fortunes that could have fed the poor. Gender Progressivism destroyed families; false democracy and the Equality Cult, targeting outcome, possibly dealt the final blow. Some used this process for personal gain but most of the heretics were sincerely deluded by a belief in rationally-driven perfection on earth.”
“The result was the wholesale collapse of Western Civilisation,” she added. “Everything atomised over about 200 years: empires and nation-states, the global economy, the sciences and humanities, communities and even individual families. Each began breaking into smaller and more exclusive subsets; linguistically, intellectually, practically, geographically and even morally. Technology helped it along. Historians joke about blogs – you will have read about them – saying that at the end, by 2035, the West was so atomised that everyone had his own blog so nobody had time to read more than he himself wrote. People preferred solipsism. Western Civilisation was atomised by instinct, technology, materialism and psycho-sociology.”
Miss Abasingame raised her hand. “Eventually little was left but the Church. Hence the debates during the Restructuring,” she suggested and her teacher smiled again.
“Your mother knows better than all of us,” the elderly scholar replied. Among her generation Carlotta’s mother was one of the foremost Legati Internum, or Internal Ambassadors, but it was hardly ever mentioned in the classroom.
“We’re ahead of ourselves by two terms,” the teacher apologised. “But as we all know, three centuries after the Great Retraction people rejected both world government and nation states. Once nations were abolished individual citizenship became transportable anywhere, awarded by the professions, disciplines and trades rather like the old medieval guilds. So now the ambassadors from the Mundo Scientia, the Culturae, the Artifices Consumerent and so forth convene in Rome under the moral authority, and translate policies into their respective languages, while modern communication technology enables the parallel administrations, legislatures and courts.” Some of the students nodded as if it had all sunk in. It surely had, at least for some.
“Thank you, that’s all until Thursday,” she added, and her students across the solar system began to collect their belongings. It had been a better session than she had expected, and the brighter pupils might help to raise the standards of the rest.
“One more thing!” she called out. “Dean Chaudhury tells me that the whole curriculum shifts to Latin next year as planned. Besides being the language of internal diplomacy and governance, it’s fairer to students from the growing number of purely Latinate colopods, so do not neglect your language studies. Until Thursday, In Dei Nomine, Valere!”
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