As part of a look back over our nation's history, the editors of American Heritage asked a wide range of historians, journalists, writers and public figures: How do you think America has changed in the past 40 years?

Here are excerpts of the answers, which are as various, provocative and illuminating as the people they come from.

The changing role of women, which has affected our intimate relations and our expectations of strangers, may be the most important change in the last 40 years.

Television helps by showing old movies. The films of 1954 put women in roles that now seem quaint.

The change may be a reason that we hear the complaint that there are no roles for older actresses. The ditsy dowager has become less credible, and we haven't yet figured out how to tell a story in which the judge is a grand-mother.

I think we will, though, because society nowadays seems to demand more intelligence and more participation by the intelligent of all ages and genders.

- NAOMI BLIVEN, author,

"On Her Own"

When you drove across the country in 1954, bouncing along on bad roads, risking ptomaine in dubious diners, holing up nights in roadside cabins and tourist courts, you were rewarded with a constant change of scene that amounted to more than a change of landscape.

There were no chain restaurants, no franchised muffler-repair shops. Even the brands of beer and gasoline were apt to change when you crossed a couple of state lines.

Nowadays you take the Eisenhower administration's most enduring legacy, the interstate highway system, and eat at Burger Kings and sleep in Days Inns. When the scenery palls, you duck into a mall, walk past 30 franchised shops and catch a movie at the fourplex theater.

- LAWRENCE BLOCK, author,

"Eight Million Ways to Die"

and other books

Forty years ago the face of the American political, economic and cultural establishment was white only. Four decades later all the primary colors are vivid and visible in the mosaic of America.

We still have too far to go in resolving our complex feeling about race, but the fact of a multiracial society is no longer denied.

I can think of no greater or more welcome change in 40 years.

- TOM BROKAW, anchorman,

"NBC Nightly News"

I don't know where it went exactly, but sometime around 1954 America lost its sense of irony. This may have been sheer carelessness on our part. Or the H-bomb may have blown it away.

Roger Rosenblatt

writer

The great regulator of days gone by is no longer vibrant, and the consequences hardly need to be enumerated.

In other ages it was all there: crime, libertinism, self-centeredness, infidelity. But it was viewed as departure from the correct standards.

Now we get such as the surgeon general, whose answer to the question: "Is it wrong to conceive out of wedlock?" was "No. Everyone has different moral standards."

- WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY JR.,

editor in chief,

the National Review;

author, "On the Firing Line"

As a medical student, I could walk the streets of various American cities without great anxiety. I well remember leaving my college dorm room unlocked all the time.

Now fear - of robbers, of injury, even of death - hovers over many of us who walk city streets, drive city roads - black and white, well-to-do and poor: a significant and melancholy turn of events.

- ROBERT COLES, professor of psychiatry and medical

humanities, Harvard University

Medical School; author,

"Children of Crisis:

A Study of Courage and Fear"

The most important change in this country in the last 40 years took place in 1973, when the upheaval of Watergate triggered a shift from presidential government to congressional government.

- THOMAS FLEMING, author,

"The Officers' Wives"

The most interesting change has been the development of the computer.

Of course, we all have been affected by computers in hundreds of ways, but for me the computer's most striking impact has been its effect on my typing. All my life I have been a two-finger typist.

I know pretty well where the different letters are, and I can hit the keys at a reasonably rapid pace, but no matter how hard I concentrate I make lots and lots of typos.

Today I am probably an even more inaccurate typist than I was back in 1954. But thanks to my trusty spelling checker, on paper I now look flawless.

- JOHN A. GARRATY,

professor of history,

Columbia University;

author, "The American Nation"

Years ago it was more or less clear what it meant to "be an American."

Now, who has any idea at all?

Indeed, paradoxically, the very question seems now somewhat un-American.

So enamored are we of diversity, of multiculturalism, of the sense of ourselves as many rather than one, that merely trying to define what an American is today is itself un-American.

The eagerness to think of ourselves as one people provided a kind of spiritual underpinning to such powerful forces for social change as the creation of social security in the 1930s or the civil rights battles of the 1960s.

Now, the dream of homogeneity lies shattered. We no longer aspire to it as a people. We no longer believe it has any connection to the hope of a better life.

We are less innocent, vastly less trusting - and unable, at least so far, to find a way to bring out of our current infatuation with confrontation and differences any kind of vision of harmony and whole-ness.

It is not that we were once homogeneous and now we are not. It is that once, despite all our differences, we had a sense of common purpose.

- PAUL GOLDBERGER,

chief cultural correspondent,

the New York Times

It may be that the sudden appearance and spread of AIDS is among the greatest dangers and disasters of modern times.

A young, sexually active generation had only just begun to celebrate a new and liberating mode of life - with pop-culture heroes, musicals like "Hair," an astonishing freedom from old inhibitions and hang-ups - when the wild celebration of the Aquarius Revolution was brought to a dead halt.

- ANTHONY HECHT,

poet and professor,

Georgetown University

Revolutions come and go. Even the Russian Revolution has finally, mercifully, gone.

But one revolution, I suspect, will remain with us for the foreseeable future: the sexual revolution.

In 1954 the illegitimacy ratio (the proportion of out-of-wedlock births to total births) was less than 4.5 percent.

In 1991 (the last year for which we have definitive statistics), it was 29.5 percent. Today it is certainly above 30 percent - a sevenfold increase in less than half a century.

The white ratio rose from almost 2 percent to 22 percent; the black from almost 20 percent to 68 percent.

In 1964, when Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote his report about the breakdown of the black family, the black illegitimacy ratio was 24.5 percent. Today the white illegitimacy ratio is 22 percent.

For poor whites (below the official poverty line) the ratio is 44 percent. In 1990 one in 10 teenage girls got pregnant.

And looming over all these statistics is the well-documented correlation between single-parent families and welfare, crime, juvenile delinquency, drug abuse, school dropouts, illiteracy and the rest of the familiar syndrome known as "social pathology."

There is no question but that we are experiencing a sexual revolution that is nothing less than a major social revolution.

- GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB,

author, "On Looking Into

the Abyss: Untimely Thoughts

on Culture and Society"

Society has become technologically sophisticated - cellular phones, fax machines, computers, VCRs, etc., etc.

Democracy has replaced communism in Germany and Russia and signaled a new era in South Africa.

Polio has been eliminated, but AIDS has appeared.

We have become more sophisticated politically and are asking more questions.

We sue doctors for malpractice, sue the police for incompetence, and sue bosses for sexual harassment. The lawyers are cleaning up, but their profession no longer enjoys the respect it once had.

- ANN LANDERS, syndicated

newspaper columnist

Americans talk more than they used to. We are now such a garrulous nation!

Talking on the talk shows, on talk radio, calling in to "America's Talking" and Bob Grant and Joy Behar, chattering away live with astrologers on public access, telling absolute strangers that our mother is a lesbian biker, that we're having an affair with our brother-in-law.

There's a whole lot of sharing going on out there, and just one of the interesting things about it is it doesn't seem authentic - i.e., the secrets people are sharing don't seem like real secrets but like narrative constructed to give us a claim on the national microphone.

One wonders also, Who's listening? Who is learning, being heartened, instructed, shocked?

Hemingway once said: "Do not confuse movement with action."

We are becoming a people who confuse chatter with communication.

- PEGGY NOONAN, author,

"What I Saw at the Revolution:

Life in the Reagan Era"

I am glad to see women attain power in American life. I have a woman editor, a woman lawyer, a woman business counselor, three brilliant women assistants, and women in all other aspects of my life.

I much prefer the present systems of courtship to the stupid, rigorous patterns to which I had to conform when I was young.

But I am distressed to see the number of fine young men I know and teach who have opted not to marry because the new rules are so poorly defined and often so unfair to the fumbling husband.

Friends tell me: "Jim, you're too old. The young men coming along will be educated differently, and all will balance out." I hope they prove to be right.

- JAMES A. MICHENER,

author of "Hawaii"

and other books

The most important change, I think, is that the United States has triumphed over its adversary, the Soviet Union, and emerged as the dominant power in the world.

This is a precarious situation and probably will not last far into the 21st century.

In this time of primacy it is America's challenge to take the lead in meeting such international perils as nuclear proliferation, environmental deterioration and runaway population growth.

Three or four hundred years from now, historians will say that the most fateful developments of our time were two scientific events.

One was the release of atomic energy, which put our civilization and our very existence under permanent threat of destruction.

The other was the revelation of the genetic code, a discovery whose effects on human health and welfare are just beginning to be felt.

- JOSEPH J. THORNDIKE,

co-founder,

American Heritage magazine

I don't know where it went exactly, but sometime around 1954 America lost its sense of irony.

This may have been sheer carelessness on our part.

Or the H-bomb may have blown it away.

Or irony may have decided to walk out on its own - without leaving a note - because the country was getting too serious about itself, while at the same time becoming splintered into intense little special-interest groups, to which the intrusion of something as expansive as irony would have been intolerable.

In any case, irony took a permanent hike. And its absence has made life hell for writers and stupid for discourse in general. There are no wry jokes to be gotten, since there are no wry jokes to be made. Everyone is taken at his or her word.

Not that people have to mean what they say; they merely have to sound that way.

Thus in politics and other demonstrations of public life we are often confronted with the delightful combination of solemnity and insincerity. (The use of delightful here is ironic, by the way.)

Why does the disappearance of irony matter?

Because when people lose their sense of irony, they forfeit their ability to be teased out of adamancy. Thus they also lose the chance to change their minds.

So everybody is right, and everybody knows it, and God has a smile on his or her face that seems part amused, part melancholy, part angry.

What would you call that?

- ROGER ROSENBLATT, author,

"Life Itself: Abortion

in the American Mind"

and other books