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Human Progress

I married my wife in 1954. She confirms that over the 64 years of our marriage I have generally been an optimist about human progress. I am also an optimist about human progress in the future.

Steven Pinker in his book, Enlightenment Now (2018), argues that since the 18th century the ideas of the Enlightenment have resulted in significant human progress. The ideas are reason, science and humanism. Some areas of human progress include health, wealth, life expectancy, education, knowledge, expansion of the voting franchise, reduction of violent crimes and wars, elimination of child labor, reduction of severe punishments, and the treatment of women.

Below are a some quotations from Pinker’s book regarding education and knowledge.

“At a few times in history, people have hit on technologies that multiply, indeed, exponentiate, the growth of knowledge, such as writing, printing, and electronic media.

“The school, which had been a minor social agency in most of the societies of the past, directly affecting the lives of but a small fraction of the population, expanded horizontally and vertically until it took its place along with the state, the church, the family and property as one of society’s most powerful institutions.

“ Today, education is compulsory in most countries.

“Literacy and numeracy are the foundations of modern wealth creation.

“The first countries that made the Great Escape from universal poverty in the 19th century, and the countries that have grown the fastest ever since, are the countries that educated their children most intensely.

“So much changes when you get an education! You unlearn dangerous superstitions, such as that leaders rule by divine right, or that people who don’t look like you are less than human. You learn that there are other cultures that are as tied to their ways of life as you are to yours, and for no better or worse reason. You learn that charismatic saviors have led their countries to disaster. You learn that your own convictions, no matter how heartfelt or popular, may be mistaken. You learn that there are better and worse ways to live, and that other people and other cultures may know things that you don’t. Not least, you learn that there are ways of resolving conflicts without violence.

“As people are getting healthier, richer, safer, and freer, they are also becoming more literate, knowledgeable, and smarter. Early in the 19th century, 12 percent of the world could read and write; today 83 percent can.

“Most of the world’s knowledge is now online rather than locked in libraries (much of it free), and massive open online courses (MOOCs) and other forms of distance learning are becoming available to anyone with a smartphone.

“Today, almost half of the world’s population has Internet access, and three-quarters have access to a mobile phone.

“As people become better educated and increasingly skeptical of received authority, they may become unsatisfied with traditional religious verities and feel unmoored in a morally indifferent cosmos.

“The Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment set in motion the process of using knowledge to improve the human condition. At the time skeptics could reasonably say, “It will never work.” But more than two centuries later we can say that it has worked.

“A better-educated and connected world cares more about the environment, indulges fewer autocrats, and starts fewer wars.

“Many things that people used to pay for are now essentially free, including classified ads, news, encyclopedias, maps, cameras, long-distance calls, and the overhead of brick-and-mortar retailers. People are enjoying these goods more than ever, but they have vanished from GDP.

“Education, when it does what it is supposed to do, instills a respect for vetted fact and reasoned argument, and so inoculates people against conspiracy theories, reasoning by anecdote, and emotional demagoguery.

“Though our ignorance is vast (and always will be), our knowledge is astonishing, and growing daily.

“A society without historical scholarship is like a person without memory: deluded, confused, easily exploited. Philosophy grows out of the recognition that clarity and logic don’t come easily to us and that we’re better off when our thinking is refined and deepened. The arts are one of the things that make life worth living, enriching human experience with beauty and insight. Criticism is itself an art that multiplies the appreciation and enjoyment of great works. Knowledge in these domains is hard won, and needs constant enriching and updating as the times change”.

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