Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Progress Paradox: Students Now and Students Then

Weber State University hosts a number of book groups that I’ve been attending and/or leading this semester.  For example this fall we’re reading everything from Science Fiction and Computing to The Fall of the Faculty, to Hamlet's Blackberry.  This past week some students and I discussed Gregg Easterbrook’s The Progress Paradox which grapples with the predicament illustrated in the following Andy Singer cartoon:

Easterbrook argues that evidence of progress is fairly incontrovertible. Americans may sometimes feel nostalgic but few of us would be willing to jump into a time machine and live permanently in a world without modern health care, transportation, plumbing, heating, cooling, and the bounty made possible by the green revolution in farming.    Yet, in spite of the fact that we are favored compared to our ancestors, we “do not feel favored.”  Easterbrook then asks “what does this tell us about ourselves?”

Easterbrook seems to be writing a Whiggish history that legitimates complacency and a blindness toward existing injustices. But he’s really not.  He acknowledges that there is still too much inequality, and that the developing world still has yet to reap the full boons of progress.  But because he sees the glass as half full and is grateful for what he has, he argues that we should use and share those resources to help others.  That doesn’t mean that we’ll be able to escape the tragedy of the human condition or the fact that we’re hedonically adaptive: we can make a better future for our descendents, but those descendents will continue to complain.

The Progress Paradox isn’t without its weaknesses especially in light of the current crises we’re facing in education, potential climate collapse, a growing disparity in wealth between rich and poor, and continued resource scarcity.  Easterbrook may be right that history is progressive over the long term.  But the direction of history seems less clear when we look at the recent past.  To paraphrase Thomas Friedman, the world isn’t really quite as flat as we sometimes present it.  In spite of all this, I think the students still thought that it was a good inquiry into the nature of technological change, the tragedy of the human condition, and the  possibility that an optimistic demeanor can give foundation to an enlightened and progressive politics.

Given Easterbrook's optimistic disposition, I asked the students whether they shared it in light of the Occupy Wallstreet Movement and the financial pressures they are facing as college fees increase and jobs become scarcer.  To my surprise, the six students in my discussion group did not want to dwell on that critique.  Our current crisis did not on the surface seem to dampen their sanguine outlook.  I expected them to be more like me.  As an undergrad I spent many semesters reading and writing about the politics of nihilism and existentialism.  I don't know, maybe it was more in vogue in the 80's.  Or maybe students now just don't have the leisure to go down such paths.  Either way Easterbrook provides an important reminder for at least one generation in the academy: constructive change may come as easily from people who feel optimistic about the course of history as from people who take a darker view.

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