August 1993

Progress: Our Most Important Product

The American Idea of Progress: People Naturally Seek Improvement For Themselves and Society


One of the reasons I accepted this invitation to talk to the Humanists of Utah so readily (apart from the intrinsically interesting nature of this group) is that I have been fascinated for a long time by the concept of Progress–by which I assume we mean primarily progress in the affairs of human beings. In fact, I have taught for some years now in the Liberal Education program at the University of Utah a course entitled “Perspectives on American Culture” which typically deals with several very large questions, tracing them through several different time periods in the American experience for their cultural impact.

We have, for example, discussed whether Americans really believe that all men (and maybe women) are created equal–and just what we really mean when we quote Mr. Jefferson’s memorable lines from the Declaration of Independence. We have discussed the question of cultural distinctiveness, what it is about Americans (if anything) that makes them different from other peoples around the globe. And one of my favorites has long been the question: IS REAL PROGRESS POSSIBLE?

I might say that often strikes my students as an odd kind of question to ask, for belief in Progress–the possibility if not, in fact, the inevitability of Progress–has long been part and parcel of being American and having an American outlook on life. When you go to the supermarket and inspect the laundry detergent, you will probably find each box marked “new and improved,” and to most Americans that seems redundant. “New” is obviously improved and better.

There are no doubt historical reasons for this American affinity for the idea of Progress. To the extent that this is, as John Kennedy once said, a “nation of immigrants,” why would people pull up stakes, leave friends and family and familiar surroundings to undertake a perilous ocean voyage in the 17th and 18th centuries, to try to carve a new community out of the North American wilderness–unless they anticipated improving their circumstances? Improving their situations materially and maybe spiritually? Why would they make so bold as to take up arms in 1775 against the soldiers and the Navy of the strongest military power in the western world, a British nation that had just vanquished the French in the Seven Years’ War, unless they were optimistic about being able to replace the political status quo with a system more likely to uphold their “unalienable” human rights?

So a dozen different elements–relatively large amounts of individual freedom, geographical and social mobility, relative material abundance, and the rapid pace of technological discovery and change, for example–conspired to make most Americans ardent believers in PROGRESS from the earliest times.

Historical Background of Progress

What we tend to forget is that not all people have assumed so easily that Progress is automatic, or that real Progress is even possible. In some ways, it is a conspicuously modern concept. In the Ancient World most people were poor, living at or near the poverty line, the level of bare subsistence. Life was short; age after age found itself afflicted with famine or pestilence or war (or all of the above) and human nature was often assumed to be a constant, never getting much better or much worse, a constant which precluded meaningful improvement so long as human beings remained human. How much hope was there in such a world? Occasionally, of course, a person might place his or her faith in a Messiah, someone sent by God to wrench humanity out of its normal historical rut and show them a better way. But there was little tangible secular progress as we think of it.

That is not to say there were not some exciting, even dazzling, periods in Ancient History: The Civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia were striking in their own way. And we still speak of the Periclean period as the “Golden Age” of Greece. There was the glory that was Rome under the Caesars. But all of these remarkable civilizations eventually passed from the scene, victims of internal decay of one kind or another, or external pressure–or both. And perhaps also ultimately the victims of unchanging human nature.

After the Roman Empire had dissolved, after the “barbarian invasions,” the Middle Ages, at least in the West, were anything but optimistic about progress in this world. I am not arguing that the period between 500 and 1200 A.D. was totally bleak, “Dark Ages” in which nothing of importance was happening. But hardly anyone in the Medieval period expected Progress. Life was simple; interpersonal and institutional relationships were essentially fixed and stable. And as Christianity became the dominant institutional force in Europe, the focus tended to be on the assumed next world rather than on this one, on the hereafter rather than the here-and-now.

All that began to change with the coming of the Renaissance and eventually the dawning of the Modern Era. With the development and expansion of long-distance trade and commerce, the isolation of communities and their citizens was breached and in time they became more economically interdependent. Politically, we witness the rise of dynastic Nation-States where old feudal fiefdoms or rustic principalities had previously existed. And the inquiries of thinkers like Copernicus and Galileo and, by the 17th century, Sir Isaac Newton, led to a whole host of new discoveries and inventions, new ways of looking at our existence in the Universe, and the adoptions of inductive logic and a scientific method for solving problems which had previously seemed insoluble.

So all of a sudden (to historians that means over a period of several hundred years!), people began to direct more attention to this world, on our day-to-day existence and what might be done to improve it, rather than merely waiting around for the promised after-life. The conception of a Newtonian universe, operating according to a series of discoverable and dependable natural laws, had a lot to do with the coming of the Age of the Enlightenment in the 18th century–and with the rise of a philosophy like Deism–ultimately with the intellectual justification of the American Revolution.

The Idea of Progress in America

As I have already suggested, there was nowhere in the world that the Idea of Progress took root so firmly and enthusiastically as in the new United States of America. That impulse is more observable at some times than at others; one of the favorite themes historians use to try to make sense out of the past is the cyclical theory of alternating periods of reform and consolidation (or even drift) until new problems arise and new pressures build necessitating another burst of reform activity. Certainly one of the most exciting of these periods of reform ferment occurred between the end of the War of 1812 and the beginning of the American Civil War in 1860-61, a period we sometimes call the “Era of Reform” in American history. It was Henry Adams who noted in his remarkable history of the administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison that:

“In 1815 for the first time Americans ceased to doubt the path they were to follow. Not only was the unity of their nation established, but its probable divergence from older societies was also well defined.”

Adams then noted the American reputation for shrewdness in the early 19th century, the “Yankee trader” image, and the relatively high state of public morality, but then went on to add:

“If Englishmen took pride in one trait more than in another, it was in the steady uniformity of their progress…[But] America showed an un-English rapidity in movement. In politics, the American people between 1787 and 1817 accepted greater changes than had been known in England since 1688. In religion, the Unitarian movement of Boston and Harvard College would never have been possible in England where the defection of Oxford or Cambridge, and the best educated society in the United Kingdom, would have shaken Church and State to their foundations. In literature the American school was chiefly remarkable for the rapidity with which it matured. The first book of [Washington] Irving was a successful burlesque of his own ancestral history; the first poem of Bryan sang of the earth only as a universal tomb; the first preaching of Channing assumed to overthrow the Trinity; and the first paintings of Allston aspired to recover the ideal perfection of Raphael and Titian. In all these directions the American mind showed [progressive] tendencies that surprised Englishmen more than they struck Americans.”

So Americans were conscious of their “newness,” their willingness to break with the past, and were inclined to see that inclination as an advantage rather than a handicap. Starting anew, we could avoid the mistakes and burdens of older, more staid civilizations. In this new setting, all things should be possible. We should at least be able to build John Winthrop’s “city upon a hill.”

Technological Change and Progress

This optimism and belief in Progress was clearly aided and abetted by the rapid pace of technological development. The amazingly rapid growth of a textile industry in this country followed the recreation by the weaver Samuel Slater of vital pieces of machinery from memory following his immigration from England in the late 18th century. And Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin in 1793 is another example of growth propelled into the early 1800’s. Just consider the list of American inventions, sometimes produced by the different conditions encountered during westward expansion: (1) John Deere’s invention of a steel plow in 1837, an implement light enough to be pulled by a team of horses instead of the slow-moving oxen required to pull earlier plows, yet (2) tough enough to cut through the thickly-matted grass and roots of the American prairie, and (3) smooth enough to keep the soil from clinging to the blades. By 1860, John Deere’s factory in Moline, Illinois, was turning out 10,000 plows a year and the impact on American agricultural development and productivity was tremendous.

Or consider young Cyrus McCormick who had already produced a workable model of a horse-drawn reaper by 1831. McCormick’s device allowed wheat to be cut and bundled five times as fast as the process had required when farmers were using only a hand scythe. By 1860, McCormick was selling roughly 35,000 reapers each year. And to the degree that this new machinery permitted fewer workers to produce just as much or more food and fibre in the countryside, no longer needed workers might now be put to work in the nation’s burgeoning industrial sector. We need not run through the entire list of mid-19th century inventions: Charles Goodyear and the vulcanization of rubber in 1839; the first practical telegraph invented by Samuel F.B. Morse in 1844, which opened up an entirely new field of electrical and eventually electronic communication over long distances. My point is simply that the psychosocial impact of these technological innovations, the sense that America was on the move, life was changing before one’s very eyes and each succeeding generation would be the beneficiary of these changes, was incredibly powerful. How could a person living in the United States in the middle of the 19th century fail to believe in the possibility of Progress?

Or, in a more scientific realm, consider the impact of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. (The Origin of Species was first published in 1859). The common understanding of this process of natural selection was that those forms of life best adapted to their environment, to the natural order of things, would survive in larger numbers and would triumph over those less fit. I am choosing my words with some care, for the evolutionary process as I understand it does not make value judgments, better or worse, except by a very pragmatic standard. But it was utterly predictable that most people, including some less-than-scientific thinkers like Herbert Spencer, would assume that the inevitable result of evolution was PROGRESS.

The Progressive Era

By the early years of the 20th century, as I’m sure you are aware, the country had passed into another period of reform ferment, the period we usually call the “PROGRESSIVE ERA.” Again, perhaps partly because we were entering a new century, there was a new readiness to seek ways to improve our society, our economy, our political system, even our morals. Suddenly we were encouraged to take nothing for granted. Obviously many of the old institutions and habits of thought had proven inadequate or we would not be faced with all the problems the country faced in the year 1900: (a) a concentration of wealth and economic power until the old competitive ideal and individual initiative seemed imperiled; (b) the huddled masses of “new immigrants” in the big cities of the north and east, often living in squalor amidst urban vice and crime and disease; (c) a political system that often seemed unresponsive to the people it was supposed to represent–political decisions made too often in smoke-filled rooms by corrupt ward bosses or, in the South, corrupt county sheriffs.

So now we’re going to make all of these old ways of doing things justify themselves anew, measured by the knowledge and expectations of the 20th century. That’s an exhilarating exercise when you get into it, and the years between 1901 and 1917 (or so) were exciting. Of course nothing like this can happen without a prior judgment that Progress is possible: we can make things better.

Problems For The Idea of Progress

Having said that, I would argue that notwithstanding its promising beginning, the 20th century has not been kind to the Idea of Progress. I just tossed off the year 1917 as a fairly traditional end for the Progressive Era in this country. Why? Because, of course, that is the year the United States entered World War I. And even before this country became an active belligerent, that first Great War had proved to be so ghastly in its results, so efficient with the new technology at killing literally millions of human beings (tanks, airplanes, submarines, poison gas) that the faith of thoughtful people in Progress was being shaken. When you see the cream of the younger generation in country after country go off to fight for the dubious honor of the Fatherland (or King & Country), and you see so many of them returning maimed in body and spirit–or not returning at all–it is not easy to sustain your faith in Progress.

Then, by the early 1930’s, the Western World was entering a period of catastrophic economic distress, the Great Depression. The economic dislocation of the interwar years had more than a little to do with the rise of Fascism and the rise to power first of Mussolini in Italy and, by 1933, the coming to power in Germany of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. We know what that portended, along with the rise to power of a military oligarchy in Japan and Tokyo’s drive for its own expanded empire in East Asia. We know the sorry history of World War II: perhaps 20 million Russians killed, another six million Jews, Gypsies, and other non-Aryans murdered in the Holocaust, and finally the dropping of the two atomic bombs on Japan in August, 1945. In the face of these developments, could we any longer maintain that “every day and in every way” we were getting better and better–or, for that matter, that any meaningful progress had been made by humankind in the past several thousand years?

So historians, among others, became skeptical and the so-called “Progressive Historians” of earlier in the century–Charles Beard, Carl Becker, Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., and to some extent Frederick Jackson Turner–gave way to later generations of scholars who chose to emphasize the intolerance and bigotry that have so often colored our domestic history, and the way in which American capitalism had so often exploited people we considered “backward” in other lands. Progress, these younger scholars seemed to suggest, was a faint hope if not an outright myth. Were they–are they–right? Are we just kidding ourselves if we continue to entertain the possibility of improvement? Well, let’s talk about that.

Quantity as Progress

Before we begin, it seems to me we need to make some distinctions. What do we mean when we use the word “Progress”? Are we talking primarily, perhaps exclusively, about quantifiable, material, physical progress? Or are we also, at our best, talking about striving for qualitative, moral, even spiritual progress? If we mean only the material side of life, surely for most Americans the evidence of progress during this century is overwhelming. To take perhaps the most obvious example, consider the strides made in the field of medicine and health care. No, I am not arguing that we have achieved perfection or that we do not still face monumental problems in this field, perhaps most of all the problem of how a society with finite resources will be able to pay for the best possible health care for all of its citizens. But this “health care crisis” is at least partly the result of our success in prolonging life and controlling if not eradicating any number of diseases and medical conditions that people had no choice but to face with grim resignation in the year 1900.

1993 is the 200th anniversary of a terrible Yellow Fever epidemic in Philadelphia, that ravaged particularly the poor neighborhoods of that city–a disease that was still a dreaded killer over a century later as Americans contemplated building the Panama Canal. Tuberculosis, or “consumption,” killed hundreds of thousands in the early 20th century. And typhoid! And who remembers the great influenza pandemic at the end of World War I? All this, of course, was prior to the advent of penicillin or broad-spectrum antibiotics, or radiation or chemotherapy for cancer victims, or microsurgery. In my own lifetime, I remember taking our first child, as an infant, to a St.Louis Cardinal baseball game in the middle 1960’s in August, secure in the knowledge that she had had her polio vaccine. Twenty years before, a prudent parent would not have taken a child that age out in such a large crowd at that time of year. That was the “polio season.”

Well, I need not belabor the point. People are living longer. In the year 1900, the average life expectancy at birth in this country was 47.3 years, compared to over 75 years today (and almost 80 for girl babies). And, in the majority of cases, for all of our environmental hazards, Americans are enjoying better health than they were 50 or 100 years ago, and that is a kind of undeniable Progress.

We are also, for the most part, living more comfortable lives than our grandparents could even have dreamed of. Many of the most odious, backbreaking manual labor jobs are now done by machines. True, that change may produce other kinds of problems. You didn’t find the mass of humanity worrying a lot about how it would spend its leisure time when it didn’t have any. Now, however, the standard amenities of life for the American middle class include jetting across the continent–or the world–to visit friends and family or foreign lands, and instantaneous communication with the people they would like to see if it is inconvenient to get together in person. We have enormous quantities of information available for the enrichment of our minds and the enhancement of our understanding of current affairs and the wonders of nature, all at the flick of a switch.

So when I spend a few weeks on the late 1800’s and early 1900’s in my classes at the University of Utah and then ask my students if they would like to trade places with their ancestors who lived in that time period, they tend to look at me as though I had slipped my moorings. No matter how nostalgic we might become about the supposedly simpler, more straightforward world of our youth (and there is always a good deal of selective memory at work when we do that), how many of us would really want to return to the first half of this century?

Quality as Progress

Still, material, quantifiable progress may not be enough It may ultimately be less important than improving the way human beings relate to one another, care about one another–humanistic progress, if you will. That was the note sounded by Lyndon Johnson in proposing his “Great Society” programs of the 1960’s. In that very affluent decade, the President (or maybe it was Joe Califano or Richard Goodwin) said it was about time that Americans started asking “not how much, but how good; not only how to create wealth, but how to use it; not only how fast we are going, but where we are headed.” It was time, the Great Society said, to start measuring people and institutions not by the quantity of their goods but by the quality of their character. And the Great Society was willing to be judged by the way it treated even the least of its citizens. Of course, that is a very tough standard to use in measuring Progress. Did Lyndon Johnson ask too much of us? Did he, in fact, ask too much of himself?

For, again, we all know what happened next. Within three years, we were mired in a bitterly divisive war in Southeast Asia, one that ultimately cost more than 58,000 American and many many more Vietnamese lives–a war that went a long way toward tearing Mr. Johnson’s consensus apart. And at the very same time we saw the Civil Rights movement, which had crested so marvelously in the March on Washington in 1963 with Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, give way to rioting and looting and burning in the nation’s cities: Watts in 1965, Detroit and Newark in 1967, and dozens of metropolitan areas in flames in the wake of Dr. King’s assassination in 1968. The combination of Vietnam and the Race Problem–and finally Watergate–destroyed the faith many younger Americans had in their political system, the system we had depended on to produce progress in the area of social justice.

After the double-digit inflation of the Carter years and escalating budget deficits of the 1980’s and early 1990’s, even our continuing material progress seemed in doubt. You may recall that Bill Clinton got a lot of mileage in the 1992 presidential campaign out of the question of whether the young people in his audiences might constitute the first generation of Americans to have little realistic hope of doing better than their parents had done. It was a line that worked because we couldn’t be sure that it wasn’t actually true. So what do we conclude from the historical evidence? Is it naive in the last years of the 20th century to think real progress is possible? We must have some doubts or it would hardly be worth talking about.

A Definition of Progress

Let me offer a few suggestions as we approach the problem. First of all (and perhaps this is where I should have begun), it seems to me we need to consider defining the terms. My dictionary offers as the first, generic meaning of the term “Progress,” “movement toward a goal,” and only secondarily “steady improvement, as of a civilization.” The phrase “toward a goal” is crucial. Unless you have some standard in mind, some yardstick for measuring progress, the concept is meaningless. There is no way to tell what is and is not “improvement.” What this definition does, you see, is to distinguish between simple change, and actual progress. Historians are fond of saying that change is virtually the only constant in history, the only thing that is always present. Nothing is ever quite the same as it was a century or ten years or ten minutes ago; the world is in a continual state of alteration. But whether the change is for the better, constituting genuine progress, is a different question. That necessarily involves some value judgements. So what criteria should we use?

What Criteria for Progress?

I suspect we could find as many answers to that question as there are people in this room–or people who would care to try to answer it. However since this is, after all, the Humanists of Utah, a Chapter of the American Humanist Association, I thought it might be appropriate to borrow from the list of Ten Principles of Global Humanism recently framed (and dedicated to the memory of our own Ed Wilson) by Bill Jacobsen, the Humanist chaplain at Stanford University and a field director of the AHA. We won’t go through all ten, but some of them seemed especially suitable for use as a kind of check-list to determine whether any meaningful progress is observable over the last century or so.

Take, for example, Jacobsen’s First Principle: “We focus on human concerns, not doctrinal claims.” My hunch is that it is generally true not just of Humanists but of American society today. Consider the millions of Americans who are essentially “unchurched,” who belong to no religious denomination and, for the most part, are not even embarrassed about it. That does not mean that they are indifferent to people or human concerns. When they direct attention to the plight of the homeless in the nation’s cities, or adequate health care for pregnant teenagers, or the right of homosexuals as well as heterosexuals to serve in their country’s armed forces, or battered spouses, they are showing that they care about people.

And although it is not hard to find doctrinal squabbles in some religious denominations, it seems to me the old-line, mainstream Protestant churches in this country have soft-pedaled their discussion of doctrine in recent decades in preference for more active work for social justice and human rights. Most Americans are far less likely to get excited today about the precise configuration of the Godhead, or whether we ask forgiveness for our debts or our trespasses when we mumble the Lord’s Prayer, or whether one should be dunked or sprinkled during baptism, than was the case a century ago. I confess I regard that as Progress.

The Second Principle says: “We celebrate character, not creed; a diversity of traditions, not just what we inherit personally or culturally.” We hear a good deal about diversity these days. There is even an Associate Academic Vice President at the University of Utah whose job it is to foster diversity on campus, something we badly need. The fact is, even though we still fall far short of full equality of opportunity in our society, there are many more women and people of color on college campuses today than there were half a century ago. And I have to believe that represents Progress. Contrast the fact that today we court and welcome diversity, with the ethnocentricity and gender bias that prevailed a few decades ago, which reflected deeply ingrained attitudes of Anglo-American, Christian, male cultural and moral superiority and no need to honor or even tolerate different styles and customs. Isn’t that Progress?

The Fourth Principle proclaims that “We embrace the scientific project that explores humanity and nature without recourse to non-natural entities.” It is within the lifetime of some people in this room that William Jennings Bryan and the Christian Fundamentalists launched their attack on the teaching of Darwinian evolution in the public schools of Dayton, Tennessee during the trial of John Thomas Scopes in the summer of 1925. Today, I suspect the overwhelming majority of Americans immediately wrote off David Koresh and his followers in their compound outside Waco, Texas, as a bunch of loonies for their rejection of the secular world’s understanding of reality. Perhaps the thing that frightens us the most about Islamic Fundamentalism in a place like Iran is its utter rejection of the last several hundred years of the rule of reason and the scientific method in the world, things we instinctively feel all sensible people should agree on. So I think I would argue that despite the aberrant behavior of some groups and individuals, scientific realism and inductive reasoning are the norm in the modern era. And that is Progress.

The Sixth Principle of Global Humanism reminds us that “This planet is our home, shared with other people, other sentients. As we write a story with our lives, we determine the fate of future generations.” In the early years of this century, a man like John Muir was literally a “voice crying in the wilderness” in urging human beings to respect their environment, to live within and appreciate nature. To be sure, old habits are hard to break, and the impulse to exploit natural resources for immediate profit with little regard for the future (or the other inhabitants of the plant) certainly lingers. But at least it is an issue now, and millions of people have an environmental sensitivity that was almost totally absent a few decades ago. Surely that is Progress.


Well, I am not going to go through the entire list of ten. You may want to pursue it on your own or create your own set of criteria for Progress. All in all, I wonder if it doesn’t finally come down to an Act of Faith, a faith that human beings do have the ability, the opportunity, to improve themselves, to choose the better over the worse? You see, if we have lost that faith, there is no earthly reason to make the effort–and ethical stasis becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sometimes I wonder if the striving itself is not the point. In casting about for a title for this talk, I decided the old Westinghouse slogan might be amended to good advantage; maybe our most important product as human beings is the continuing quest for progress.

Of all the species on this planet, so far as we know, only humans have the capacity to imagine a better world and the possibility of making it a reality. Isn’t the quest for progress, then, an essential part of being human? (No one said it would be easy.) Hardly anything of importance is accomplished in this world without an enormous amount of hard work, endurance, and tenacity. Progress, if it exists, seems nearly always to be a matter of three steps forward and two back (or fifty-three forward and fifty-two back); yet what is the alternative to continuing the quest?

For the sake of humanity and ourselves, we have little choice but to try to leave the world a little bit better than we found it. Our forebears believed that, and their efforts gave us much of lasting value. We can do no less for generations yet to come.

Additional ideas generated during the discussion after the lecture:

  • Is the key to real, qualitative progress to be found within each individual, within the human heart? Or must it be found in the interaction between/among human beings, the way we treat one another?
  • What are some other possible criteria for judging progress?
    1. Basic fairness? Our increasing refusal to discriminate against other people for reasons that are beyond their control, “accidents of birth”?
    2. More compassion for those less fortunate than ourselves?
    3. More tolerance for people who are different, perhaps linked to our growing awareness of the marvelous diversity of humankind. As differences become more familiar they are less frightening.
    4. Are we more or less violent than we used to be? Or is increasing violence inevitably linked to changing technology and the global population explosion?
  • What is the goal, the objectives, toward which we want to move?
    1. Is it personal happiness, linked to finding fulfillment in life? (If so, how do we account for different levels of expectation? Don’t people today expect much more from life than their grandparents did?)
    2. Have you ever considered trying to design your own Utopia, the perfect society in which progress over the present would be self-evident?
  • If Progress is an illusion, isn’t it still a very useful, functional illusion?

–Alan Coombs, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of History, University of Utah