That implacable educator, History, at last assigned a lesson that even the duller members of the class could grasp. Britain, its Government had announced, no longer possessed the resources to continue its comparatively puny military aid to Greece. India had all but left the Empire. Burma and Malaya were going. South Africa was tugging at the tether. In the citadel itself were hunger, cold and socialism.
History was moving with 20th Century acceleration. Americans, who between boyhood and manhood had seen the collapse of four mighty states (the Russian and Austrian empires, Germany and France), heard the news almost with awe. For they grasped the fact that this was no merely political or military crisis; it was a crisis in Western civilization itself. It meant that the U.S. must take over from Britain the job of trying to solve the problem of contemporary history. The U.S. must, in Britain's place, consciously become what she had been, in reluctant fact, since the beginning of World War II: the champion of the remnant of Christian civilization against the forces that threatened it.
But most Americans had no more idea that there is a problem of history than that there is a problem of evil. And they had been so busy creating the world's first great technology that they had little more notion than the Indians they had supplanted what a civilization is or what to do with one.
The Historian. The one man in the world probably best equipped to tell them was in the U.S. last week. Professor Arnold Joseph Toynbee, cultural legate from a Britain in crisis to a U.S. at the crossroads, was delivering six lectures ("Encounters between Civilizations") to the history-haunted young women of Bryn Mawr College. So many students and visitors (one woman drove from Minneapolis to hear Toynbee) crammed the 1,000-seat lecture hall that people had to be turned away.
But outside of intellectual circles, Professor Toynbee's name was known to few Americans. Even fewer had read his monumental work in progress, modestly titled A Study of History, of which six volumes (with a possible three more to come) have appeared at intervals since 1934. Yet A Study of History was the most provocative work of historical theory written in England since Karl Marx's Capital.
For Professor Toynbee, while avoiding the sins that beset Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West"baffling immensity and enigmatic gloom"had met the German philosopher's requirement for the writing of 20th Century history: Toynbee had found history Ptolemaic and left it Copernican. He had found historical thinking nation-centered, as before Copernicus astronomical thinking had been geocentric. The nation (Greece, Rome, Japan, the U.S.) was the common unit of history. Toynbee believed that not nations but civilizations were the "intelligible fields of study."