The Right Side of History

The importance of mobilizing the next generation.

Posted Mar 07, 2018

geralt / pixabay
Source: geralt / pixabay

History tells us that, at the end of the day, there actually is a “right side of history.” For instance, most of us would likely agree on the following:

  • The abolitionists in pre-Civil War America were on the right side of history.
  • The suffragettes who fought for the rights of women in the electoral process were on the right side of history.
  • Zookeepers who, in a sweeping change across the globe, dramatically changed conditions for animals so as to better match their natural environments were on the right side of history.
  • The allies in World War II were on the right side of history.

Of course, sometimes being on the right side of history pays very little in the way of rewards during one’s own time. So it takes quite a lot to get creatures like us to take steps, often against our own short-term interests, to make it onto the right side of history.

The Activistic Ape

Each of the above examples required a great deal of sacrifice on the part of individuals and groups. The Civil War, for instance, claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans who were fighting to maintain a certain way of life and philosophy of being human. History tells us that being on the right side of history often comes with enormous costs.

Given the self-sacrifice that so often accompanies steps toward making things “right,” it’s a wonder that humans ever do it at all. After all, as the field of social psychology has famously taught us over the decades, going out of one’s way to help others in need is actually something that people shy away from (see Darley & Batson, 1973).

The good news is this: When you look into our evolutionary past, you will see signs of self-sacrifice and group coordination that go deep into our ancestry. In a groundbreaking analysis of human origins, Bingham and Souza (2009) provided evidence from a broad array of disciplines speaking to the fact that humans evolved for group coordination. Going back thousands of generations, our hominid ancestors coordinated with others, across kin lines, to exert power over others, such as unfair rulers. In short, a group of individuals, armed with sticks and stones, if well-coordinated, could take power from a single unfair leader, even if that leader is really strong. There is strength in numbers, and our evolved psychology is largely based on this fact. This is where things like democracy come from.

Mobilizing the Next Generation

If you know me well, you know that I take an active role in trying to mobilize members of the next generation. As a professor, I work closely with hundreds of young adults each semester. And I take this work seriously, regularly telling my students that my generation is doubling down on their generation to get this world back on track.

Wherever you are on the political spectrum, you probably see some problems in the world and you probably would like to see some improvements. If that’s the case, then getting the next generation of leaders to see the world’s problems and to understand the importance of coordinating with others to achieve common goals is essential.

The younger generation is pretty much always looked at with some degree of eye-rolling from members of older generations (see Eisner, 2005). But you know, for the sake of all of us, we need to put aside this bias and work to empower the next generation as they are the key to our shared future.

Getting young people to understand the problems of the world and getting them to understand how to organize and take collective action is, in fact, an essential part of our role as teachers. And by “teachers,” I don’t mean that in the formal sense. When it comes to shaping the next generation, we are all teachers, regardless of any formal designation. And it is up to all of us to help build a sense of shared responsibility for our world in the next generation.

Alexander Hamilton as a Case in Point

Alexander Hamilton changed the world in permanent ways, helping shape the foundation of our democracy. Do you know that he was 22 years old when he became a key aide to George Washington in leading the Continental Army? This guy got it! And whoever mentored him got it as well.

The world does not change itself - it takes a proactive mindset as well as the ability to work with others toward a common goal. Hamilton was one of the first activists in our country, ultimately sacrificing his own life so that we could live in what many consider the greatest democracy that has ever existed. He sacrificed his life because he felt, so strongly, that he was on the right side of history. So don’t tell me that young people can’t change the world!

Bottom Line

Whatever your political beliefs, you probably see some problems in the world and you probably are hoping for some improvements. The only way that the world is going to get any better is through lots of self-sacrifice and lots of coordination among individuals to form groups working toward common goals. This is how humans run - and this is how we have run for thousands of generations. Getting young people, the leaders of the next generation, to drop their apathetic veneer, learn the issues, take a stand, and participate actively in our government is essential in this day and age. If you want to be on the right side of history, at the end of the day, I say this: Building the next generation is the key.


Bingham, P. M., & Souza, J. (2009). Death from a distance and the birth of a humane universe. Lexington, KY: BookSurge Publishing.

Darley, J. M., and Batson, C.D. (1973). From Jerusalem to Jericho: A study of Situational and Dispositional Variables in Helping Behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1973, 27, 100-108.

Eisner, S. P. (2005). Managing Generation Y. S.A.M. Advanced Management Journal, 70, 4-15.