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My Millennium Bug


Hugh McInnish


Hugh I 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 nothing.

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 his counting.

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