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2017: Looking back and forging ahead

As Duke students trudge into the first days of a new semester and people across the United States begin the 2017 work year, a certain lugubrious aura of dissatisfaction seems to permeate the national mood. According to Gallup polls, only 27 percent of Americans are satisfied with the direction the nation was taking, and less than half of Americans are confident in the president elect’s ability to successfully govern. Politically polarizing events and trends from previous year(s)—accusations of Russian hacking, the presidential election, the Syrian Refugee Crisis, the rise of the “alt-right” and racial unrest—divide our nation into belligerent tribes. Especially on college campuses, the mood seems cynical, almost pessimistic, as the world transitions into 2017.

But we should not just silently accept the national mood—the zeitgeist—inside liberal bubbles. Considering the present year—with all its emotional baggage—it is important to take a look back into the history books in order to truly contextualize 2017 with previous milestone years in American history. In the process of doing so, we can learn from the past and consider what the future might have in store for us this year.

For those alive 50 years ago in 1967, the national mood was darkened by the escalating war in Vietnam, the worsening of race relations with riots breaking out in American cities and burgeoning counterculture movements. Perhaps outdoing that of 1967, the mood of 1937—80 years ago—was even more bleak: Americans fought desperately to lift themselves out of the Great Depression while fascism continued its global domination evidenced by horrific events like the Rape of Nanking. Americans 100 years ago in 1917 no doubt felt a similar ominous attitude towards what the year would bring given the bloody Great War raging in Europe at the time—a conflict the United States would come to enter early that year.

The broad point is that the pessimism, feelings of discontent and dissatisfaction that currently permeate our national mood are not entirely new. Our country, faced with inauspicious events happening both domestically and internationally, has survived such periods of “emotional recessions” in the past to forge brighter futures ahead. Consequently, we can learn from that past—thinking beyond just the dull flashcards and rote memorization of dates required to pass a history course—to affect the change we want to see in 2017. We can think of what trends and events today will make it onto flashcards of the future: how themes of the modern era echo and advance those of the past. Pundits are already comparing and contrasting current police brutality against mostly black protesters with similar events of the late 1960s (widely considered to be a nadir period of race relations in American history). Similarly, President elect Trump’s positive gestures towards Moscow have brought about comparisons to the past policy of appeasement favored during the late 1930s.

It would be dishonest for us to consider 2017 as divorced from the historical context of previous years, or even decades. History, even the parts we live through today, is a pattern of alternating trends, moods and events. When conducting ourselves this year and witnessing events around us, we should look to the past for both solace, guidance and context in that pattern. Moreover, in the spirit of “Knowledge in the Service of Society”—a cornerstone tenet of Duke education—considering history can provide us with understanding necessary to produce effective solutions to the challenges, both old and new, the world and Duke University will face in 2017.

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