When I had the privilege of teaching, I often taught a course called “Myth and Culture,” which was essentially a world mythology course.
We always start with the basics: the definition of the myth. In common usage, the word myth is meant to mean something wrong, but the most scholarly definition is a story, often about gods and heroes, which is held to be true and sacred. Indeed, one of the textbooks we used was called Sacred Stories. When I then call something a myth, I know that a lot of people believed or believe it to be true, regardless of what I personally believe.
When we study the myths of the ancient Greeks and Romans today, for example, we don’t take them all seriously; these are not our myths. Could there really have been so many gods and goddesses and did they really act like spoiled children? Did the Greeks and Romans really believe these stories literally or was there an underlying truth that the stories were meant to convey? What do the stories tell us about the meaning of life? Big questions; hard questions for 18 year olds in a college classroom!
One of my favorite myths to study has always been the myths of the golden age. In these stories, the golden age was that of plenty: there was no hunger, human beings (well, men) were righteous, and there was no war.
Subsequent generations viewed these stories with a bit of cynicism. Would life have never been so good? They made up exaggerated stories of a time when fish would jump from the river in nets, then jump into the frying pan. Rivers of soup and sausage flowed freely. Jewels litter the streets, apples fly from the trees. It is clear that no one is hungry or poor! It was a way of making fun of the idealized vision of a golden age. It’s also a way of suggesting that our present times may not be as bad as people think.
When my students challenged the intelligence of those who might have believed in a golden age, I asked them to define what “the good old days” meant in their world or that of their parents and grandparents. . They spoke of days when life was easier. I was able to share my penchant for writing letters and the fact that my uncle the machinist retired when his job was more to look at a screen and less to work with the machines that ran the factory. Those good old days are just another version of a Golden Age mythology.
However, when the students looked back with a more critical eye, they also noted that racism and sexism were more tolerated and that mental health was not seen as a health issue but as a character flaw. The good old days were not good for everyone.
The other side of the equation is how a belief in the golden age or the good old days is also a way of commenting on the present. However, the best way to deal with our dissatisfaction with the present is to build the future. Looking back can only take us very far in an ever-changing world. Doing what we’ve always done only brings us to the same end point.
When we consider the current age, with COVID, climate change, and internet trolling among other challenges, it’s hard to imagine anyone considering this to be the ‘good old days’. Still, I like to think that the way we deal with the myriad challenges we face can create a future in which people will look back with pride rather than envy.
The challenge of building the future is one of the things I love most about my job in education. We have to learn from the past, but we don’t need to repeat it. We can imagine what is to come so that we can help our students prepare for this world. I hope that future generations will look at the world around them and be grateful rather than dissatisfied with the world we have prepared them to build.
Bonnie D. Irwin is Chancellor of the University of Hawaii at Hilo. His column appears monthly in the Tribune-Herald.