The list of possible candidates is lengthy. The domestication of animals? The rise and fall of one or more empires? The appearance of a 'great man' historical figure and his ideas, such as Confucius, Socrates, or Karl Marx? The emergence of a world religion, such as Judaism, Christianity or Islam? The development of the written word? The rule of law with the Magna Carta (800 years ago today)! The discovery of the New World? The use of antibiotics?
The answer: It depends! What criteria do we use? I recently came across a graph that attempts to answer the question, identifying a development that 'bent the curve of human history' in a way that nothing else has. The graph is below:
The central idea here is that the steam engine, and associated industrial technologies, underlies the sudden exponential progress in human social development (and human population). This invention was the point at which the limitations of muscle power were overcome and massive amounts of useful energy became accessible, which then led on to subsequent multiplying technological innovation and progress. Factories, transportation, urbanisation ... everything else that constituted the Industrial Revolution erupted from the fact that muscle power had been surpassed.
The graph comes from Ian Morris' book Why the West Rules - For Now: The Patterns of History, and What they Reveal About the Future. However, I came across it in one of the more exhilirating and disturbing books that I have read in the last twelve months. The second machine age: war, progress and prosperity in a time of brilliant technologies by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee.
The authors argue that we have entered into a second machine age, whereby computers "are doing for mental power - the ability to use our brains to understand and shape our environment - what the steam engine and its descendants did for muscle power." It is their contention that the vast and unprecedented boost to mental power that is provided by computing will be equally transformative of the human story as the boost to muscle power.
Brynjolfsson and McAfee acknowledge that wide-eyed optimism about computing have been around a while and that we have all grown a little jaded in thinking about the wonders of the future. However, their book makes a cogent and persuasive case that computing really has turned an extraordinary corner in the last little while. Diagnosing diseases, listening and speaking to us,writing and evaluating high-quality prose, robots scurrying around warehouses ... all these things are present realities.
To outline just one example from their book, in 2004 it was a given within the field of computing that computers would never be able to drive cars because computers were good at following rules but no good at the complex levels of pattern recognition involved in driving a car. Driverless cars in 2004 entirely validated this conviction.
By 2012, Google had developed a fleet of driverless cars that had logged more than 500 000 kilometres on urban roads. According to Wikipedia, Google plans to make these cars available to the public from 2020 - which is around when our Year 6 students will be getting their licenses!
I won't go on to summarise the whole book, but it makes a good case that the rate and extent of change that we and our children are about to experience is unimaginable.
The challenge for education becomes all the more pointed. What education will our children need to equip them for this 'second machine age' into which they are moving? I remain convinced that the personal capabilities and characteristics of the Inaburra Learner Profile will be invaluable to them. The question is, how does education need to change in order to cultivate these capabilities?
(Oh, and for what it is worth, my own conviction is that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ remains the most important event in human history. But that is a story for another day!)