It’s been a hard time for the partisans of progress. We’ve just seen how suddenly things we value about modern life—accomplishments of Progress with a capital “P”—can be swept away. It might just be a wet food market, a bat stressed by ecological change . . . and suddenly foundations of society everywhere are shaking, with the most vulnerable paying the highest price, of course.
And yet, shocking as the pandemic has been—so far more than 550,000 dead in the United States alone—the rapidity of the response to it is startling in its own right. The science behind messenger RNA drug development has been percolating for over a decade now, but the rapid customization of a vaccine to the genetic sequence of this particular virus is an achievement for the ages. Public health and science marching hand in hand, funded by governments supporting the welfare of their citizens. It warms the heart of anyone who believes in the progressive legacies of the Enlightenment.
This issue of Wesleyan magazine illustrates both this progressive creed and problems generated by it. The environmental movement is wrestling with the damage wrought by technology as people try to dominate the world in order to make it more of a home for humans. The profound threats posed by climate change are specific by-products of having too much faith in our abilities to make the world a better place (at least for us).
Still, it would be a mistake to ignore the extraordinary accomplishments stemming from that faith in progress. Take the astonishing reductions in poverty around the world. Over the last century, the percentage of people living in extreme poverty has been reduced from 90% to under 10%. The acceleration of this progress in the last half-century has been truly remarkable, and there is similar good news in decreased child mortality and increased life expectancy.
Defenders of the Enlightenment decry the reluctance of academics in the humanities and interpretive social sciences to celebrate the genuine accomplishments made possible by the application of rationality to social problems. Why this reluctance? Mostly because the story of these accomplishments—as told by the true believers in Progress—too often ignores the part played by social injustice. Humanists don’t dismiss the importance of reductions in poverty, but neither do they simply want to describe slavery, colonialism, and other forms of exploitation as the price one has (always?) to pay for progress. Likewise, a judicious history of the triumphant rise of science and rationality should include chapters on the massive increases in the destructive power now in human hands. The existential risks of nuclear war and deep ecological dislocation are not reduced because of the progress we’ve made with respect to poverty and life expectancy. Some of the same forces that helped create the positive changes have also led to enormous problems. And past performance is, as they say, no guarantee of future results. The pandemic should have taught us, at least, some intellectual humility about our power to control the world around us.
Intellectual humility isn’t just about thinking, however. It is also about being open to registers of feeling that one might at first find uncongenial, even distasteful. Reading Shakespeare expands students’ capacity for empathy; reading James Baldwin deepens their understanding of racist betrayal. When a teacher helps students to appreciate a character in a novel who is not wholly sympathetic, or to admire an argument even when it runs counter to their own assumptions, or to occupy identities and ideologies they would never encounter in their own curated information networks, that teacher is helping expand students’ emotional registers as well as intellectual ones. When my own students try to understand why Aristotle made his arguments about habit, why Jean-Jacques Rousseau saw inequality linked to the development of society, what Jane Austen meant by vanity as an obstacle to love, or why Toni Morrison’s Sethe holds what haunts her, they are exercising their empathy, strengthening their power of generous insight, and becoming more aware of how their feelings are aroused or redirected. In being willing to make emotional as well as intellectual connections to ideas and characters who disturb where they are coming from, students broaden where they might be willing to go. Intellectual diversity empowers discernment in students—not just critique—giving them opportunities for intellectual and emotional growth they might not have had otherwise.
Expanding the repertoire of feelings has long been a goal of liberal education. Through history, literature, and the arts we make connections to worlds of emotion, creativity, and intelligence that take us beyond our individual identities and our group allegiances. The exercise of critical feeling should make us less susceptible to demagogic manipulation and to the misleading politics of resentment. It should make us more understanding of why other people care about the things they do. In a political and cultural context that encourages crude parochialism under the guise of group solidarity, this has grown only more important.
College campuses have been places of controversy in the United States since the founding of the Republic. Some critics have objected to higher education as a luxury experience rather than providing the skills really needed, while others have complained that the independent thinking it encourages undermines tradition, belief, and loyalty. Defenses of higher education often fall back on formulae of free speech or academic freedom as if these provided a foundation for perpetual progress. But there is no such foundation. There are only reasoned conversations aimed at persuading fellow citizens that our inquiries and experiments, our skill-building, and our aesthetic explorations ultimately benefit the societies of which we are a part. On campus and beyond, we should aspire to safe enough spaces that are open to learning, to conversation, and to recognizing our own errors. That’s what we want, after all, from our campuses and from our democracy. With enough such spaces, progress will take care of itself.