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Tuesday, November 3, 2015


When I was growing up in the 50's and 60's, there was a common perception of generational progression, that I and my peers would be better off and have more opportunities than our parents. This assumption of progress goes back to America's founding as a quotation from John Adams shows:  "I am a revolutionary so that my son can be a farmer and his son a poet."

History as progress has not been universally accepted.  Some Eastern cultures see history as cyclical while Medieval Europeans viewed history linearly but as proceeding towards a Biblical end-time. As a history major in college, I began to question my assumption of historical progress and to particularly question whether humans ever made any moral improvement. These were years not long after the Jewish Holocaust and the other horrors of WWII, and seeing any moral progress in the face of these events was discouraging. The best I could do was to rationalize that humans were no worse in behavior now than in the past but that technology provided means to kill on a larger scale. Since then, a greater knowledge of the damage industrialism has inflicted on the environment calls the desirability of even technological progress into question.

I suppose I never really ceased thinking about these and other questions about history. The protagonist of a novel I recently read is a history teacher who, along with his wife, are facing life crises. In Waterland by Graham Swift, the history teacher deals with the crises by recounting to the reader and sometimes to his classes the history of his relationship with his wife, the history of his family, and the history of his region in England. History, he says, is man's search for explanation, and telling the stories is, I believe, his attempt to understand how his life got to where it is.

This history teacher is skeptical of idea of progress: "So-called forward movements of civilization, whether moral or technological, have invariably brought with them an accompanying regression" and he cites examples such as the spread of Christianity as causing "wars, butcheries, inquisitions, and other forms of barbarity" and the invention of the steam engine leading to the "miseries of industrial exploitation and to little children working sixteen hours a day in coal mines." He touches on the Great Man and cyclical theories of history but not on economic determinism, but this is a novel not a textbook.

Americans, I am told, are increasingly doubtful their children will lead lives as good as theirs, and the United States is falling behind many other countries in terms of social mobility. It's hard to retain the optimism of historical progress, generational or otherwise.

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