A few weeks ago, I offered some thoughts about the tangled, mixed-up relationship we historians have with the idea of progress. My own entangled feelings include love for our modern gadgets and means of communication; worries about climate-change, atomic war, and all the other killer threats that lurk right around the corner; sadness at the human connections we’ve lost in the last few decades; delight in the easing of the puritanism, sexism, and racism that still ruled in the 1950s; fear that those achievements are about to be rolled back. And then, like most historians these days, I take cultural relativism seriously– meaning, in thinking about societies, my starting assumption is they’re all about equally successful in organizing themselves. Can you even have an idea of progress without the belief that some ways of living are just plain better than others?
My post talked about the strangeness of doing history in this post-idea-of-progress world. Of course we can still write about the past, and do it very well. But can we believe in the significance of what we’re doing? If we don’t believe the world is going anywhere in particular, does it matter all that much where it was a few hundred years ago? I quoted the historian E. H. Carr, who thought you actually couldn’t do history without believing in progress. A fair number of our students seem to agree with him– they’re very interested in the recent past, whose connections to their own lives they can see, but they have no sense that what happened during (say) the sixteenth century shaped their own lives today.
Thinking about that question of historians and progress got me thinking more than I usually do about why our sense of progress is so weak these days. I’ve come to think it’s a more interesting question than we usually imagine.
I mean, we’ve got all the usual suspects that explain cultural pessimism neatly lined up, the kind of forces that historians like to cite to explain (for instance) Europe’s dark mood after World War I. Just in the last two decades, we’ve had wars, economic crises, genocides, destabilizing scientific discoveries. But the interesting thing is, these forces for doubt loomed even larger for previous generations, without cutting into their belief that the world was moving vigorously forward. My parents’ generation lived through the Great Depression, World War II, the Holocaust, atomic threats– our next door neighbor even built himself a backyward bomb shelter. Yet back in 1950s-ville everyone took “you can’t stop progress” as a slam-dunk life principle. It didn’t just come from the enthusiasts, either. People who hated the progress they were seeing shared the basic belief that it was inevitable.
So maybe we should consider the possibility that the external shocks — the wars, crises, and collective crimes– aren’t the whole story, maybe not even the main story. Maybe this is an area where we should highlight human agency, and look to political choices, made by identifiable groups of people, instead of big outside forces.
To see that side of things, think about what’s happening to today’s children and young adults. Almost nobody nowadays believes their kids will live as well as they do, and it’s likely things will be even worse for the following generation. We believe that because we see the mechanisms in action, in all those recently-installed measures that screw over the younger generations: we’ve ended low-cost higher education, crapified the public schools, shoved older folks’ health-care costs onto the healthy and young, ended workplace protections, created the monstrous student loan empires, and on and on.
So it’s not surprising we don’t believe in progress, despite all the miraculous inventions of the last few years– if you think life is going to be worse for the next generation than it is for us, that pretty much defines not believing in progress. But that disbelief isn’t a side effect of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle or awareness of the Holocaust or the Global Economic Crisis of 2008 or the rise of China. It’s actually because we seem not to want progress in its most basic form, that of making young people better off than we are.
There’s a glimmer of hope in that conclusion, since collective decisions like these can be reversed. But this line of thought also raises a big historical question, that nobody seems to be asking these days: why on earth are we mistreating the young people like this?