The Roots of Progress

Progress studies as a civic duty

As I learn about the story of human progress, I have come to think that an entire subject is missing from basic education.

If you didn’t know what an atom was, or a cell, or if you weren’t familiar with the concept of gravity; or if you had never heard of the Roman Empire, or the American Revolution; or if you had never read a novel—your education would be considered lacking.

But how many people know:

Ignorance on these points is common. People aren’t even slightly embarrassed by it, the way they might admit in a self-deprecating way that they’re not good at math, or can’t draw. Someone who can’t answer these questions might not feel any real lack, even when confronted with them. The topics might feel like trivia, not an essential component of an education.

I recently met a self-described “progress skeptic”, and asked, when you think of differences in the standard of living between 1700 and today, what comes to mind? She could only come up with one example, even when pressed: improved medicine. So, no awareness that famine, once common, has been virtually eradicated. No awareness of the manual labor we save by having machines to wash our clothes and vacuum our floors. Nor of the variety and quality of fresh food we can enjoy, thanks to the refrigerators in our homes, the grocery stores that supply them, and the global agricultural supply chain behind it all. No appreciation for being able to drive to that grocery store, instead of having to walk, and to carry the goods home. No awareness that lighting for our homes is vastly more affordable now, and that the light is far cleaner and safer. No appreciation for heating, for that matter, or air conditioning. No awareness that the home of 1700 didn’t have toilets. (!) No appreciation for the education, inspiration, connection and entertainment delivered to us through digital media and communications. (Indeed, she actively challenged the value of many of these things: “maybe people like to wash their clothes by hand, walk to the store, grow their own food….” The difference between enjoying an optional hobby, and being dependent on these things for survival, was not vivid for her.)

In a way, I don’t blame her: Her education was deficient, as is almost everyone’s. The story of progress falls between the cracks of history classes, which focus on war, economic cycles, and social movements; and science classes, which focus on knowledge, but not technology.

How did we let ourselves become this detached from the system that keeps us all alive and gives us the world we know?

Maybe civilization grew up too fast. A few hundred years ago, everyone, except maybe a few aristocrats, was intimately connected to the messy details of daily survival. Whether you were a farmer with your hands in the soil; or a butcher slaughtering livestock; or a carpenter laboriously sanding and polishing; or a blacksmith at the anvil, scorched by the heat of the forge; or a messenger who rode through storms over muddy roads on horseback; or a sailor hauling up the foresail; or even a scribe copying out texts by hand—you worked with your hands, you felt the burden of physical survival on your back, and you knew the fear of failure and its frequent result: hunger, privation, or death.

The comforts of the modern world, which are among its greatest achievements, are also by their nature ways in which we are detached from that gritty reality. We wake in the morning to a hot shower; we commute to our jobs in cars, buses and trains; we take the elevator to the 40th floor; we work at computers with large flat screens, on desks in temperature-controlled office buildings; we shop for food at the supermarket, cook it on an electric stove, and put the leftovers in a plastic container; we relax by listening to our favorite music performed on demand by the best artist who ever recorded it; we flip the light switch in the evening when it gets dark, then lie on a soft mattress when we want to go to sleep, shutting the plate glass window to keep out the wind and rain. Strapping young men in their twenties, hale and hearty, do all this, and so do frail, elderly grandmothers.

Life is convenient, comfortable, predictable, safe, and clean, in a way that’s hard for any of us to appreciate. We don’t smell the stench of sewage or horses in the streets, we aren’t burned by the sun while laboring in the fields, we don’t feel the weight of a pail of water as we carry it back from the well. We don’t worry about whether the crops will fail from drought or frost, or whether the creek will flood and wash out the footbridge, or whether we’ll have enough firewood to last the winter, or whether a brother will be lost at sea on his two-month voyage across the Atlantic, or whether a child will die from a scrape by a rusty nail.

And so we grow complacent. We take the modern world for granted. We forget how far we have come, and how hard-won the battle was.

And then a society full of such people debate issues such as: Should our energy come from oil, nuclear, solar, or wind? Should we vaccinate our children from measles and polio? Should we ban plastic bags, bottles, or straws? Will robots take all the jobs? (Answer: if we’re lucky!)

Do you see the problem I see here?

If you weren’t sure why our government needs a Constitution, or if you proposed that the best way out of a political crisis was to concentrate all power in a central authority, you wouldn’t be considered knowledgeable enough about civics to participate responsibly in politics. But people with the same level of ignorance about the modern economy vote for politicians who determine industrial policy for the nation and the world.

And so we all have a civic duty to give ourselves a remedial education in industrial civilization. To learn the underpinnings of the standard of living we all enjoy. To understand and appreciate how we got here, and what it took—the vision, effort, ingenuity, industriousness, struggle, and courage of those who came before us. And ultimately, in some small way at least, to keep it going and pay it forward to future generations.

I felt my own ignorance, I felt that duty, and that’s why I started this blog. Thank you for doing your part, by reading it.

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