By Paul Solon / Illustration by Craig Martin

Macalester is a wonderful place, and no one knows that better than someone like me lucky enough to have spent not just four years but indeed four decades here (in the History Department 1970–2009). Through good times and bad I was blessed with a constant stream of marvelous students whom I remember with affection in all their youthful ardor and promise. One unusual memento I still treasure: their obituaries. Not real ones, of course, but those written as a thought exercise in my course, “The Future as History.”

We spent a semester considering history as the process of change through time so the future became every bit as much the province of the historian as the past. I asked students to project their own futures in imagined obituaries. They were, to paraphrase Mrs. Malaprop, to “… cast all our retrospection to the future” and speculate on how their lives might turn out, taking into account their personal prospects and the “expert” projections of the future we had studied such as the Club of Rome study and Preparing for the Twenty-First Century. I intended the assignment to be fun; certainly the results were a pleasure to read. Collectively these roughly 150 “obituaries” offer an intriguing snapshot of a generation of Macalester students spanning the years from 1976 to 2005.

What is striking is their general optimism in anticipating peaceful, prosperous lives. No one was killed in war and domestic violence was rare, though one presciently imagined being assassinated by an anti-immigration terrorist active in an anticipated 2020 MAA movement (Make America America). Most expected happy, albeit small, families. Virtually all projected marriage, only two foresaw divorce, and the current decline in family size was fully anticipated.

My students envisioned financial security but not great wealth (aspiring oligarchs probably took econ rather than history). The single most popular career was rock star. Such aspiration probably tells us more about youthful dreams than musical prospects, but the arts generally were well represented as people envisioned winning Tonys, Academy Awards, Pulitzers, and even two Nobels. Many hoped to be diplomats and peacemakers, but domestic politics loomed large as well with proposed careers ranging from the organizer who “finally” unionized Walmart to mayors, governors, and senators, as well as the first female Chief Justice who reaffirmed Roe v. Wade, apparently still being litigated in 2040.

Obituaries are not histories, but they do inescapably reflect major developments. What do these tell us of the future that once was? Most predictions were extrapolations of the present, thus the 1980s essays imagined presidencies that never were (e.g., Sam Nunn, Ross Feingold, and Dan Quayle—who, I was assured, was impeached). Technological progress was eagerly but never fantastically anticipated (one terrific exception planned on being the first ambassador to Alpha Centauri). Instead of “warp speed” travel faster than light, we saw medical breakthroughs or energy transformations with hydrogen cars, fusion and/or wind power, and CO2 sequestration addressing climate change. Similarly, sociopolitical change was rarely seen as cataclysmic, though one predicted a full Malthusian Crisis around 2140 and another the disintegration of the United States after a second civil war fought over water rights. Even the imagined wars were low intensity and safely regional; nuclear weapons were deployed elsewhere but implausibly never in the United States. Predicted challenges were successfully managed, such as climate migration or independence movements in Hong Kong and the Amazon basin.

These imagined futures may not have all come to be, but they usefully remind us that the past is a limited guide regarding things to come. My students were in good company in their errors; the “expert” writings also look out of date. The most common expert prediction when I started teaching the course was that the world would run out of oil before the end of the century. We know how that turned out. Think, moreover, of the many things none of us foresaw: the fall of the Berlin Wall, an African American president of the United States, a woman vice president (to be fair there was one prediction of a woman president in 2042), gay marriage, a peaceful end to Apartheid, fracking, streaming, even cell phones.

I like to think that collectively these essays moved beyond compliance not merely into plans but on to aspirations. Some obituaries were perfunctory but most were wonderfully honest, imaginative, and even joyfully insouciant as one wrote, “I can’t be real here about my future …if I knew what I wanted to do with my life why would I be at a liberal arts college?”

However little we learn about the future, we surely learn about the one-time hopes and dreams of a generation of current Mac alumni. As I read them, what runs through these essays from the late baby boomers through the early millennials is that students came, as I hope they still come, to Mac with both hope and determination: to prepare, to succeed, and to make a difference. They sensed, and acted, on the reality that their future would not just “happen,” they would make it. Surely this is reassuring for partisans of a small but lively liberal arts college. What better place to prepare for a future we can only feebly predict and never really know in advance?

Paul Solon is an emeritus professor of history at Macalester.

April 21 2022

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