Progress

A Golden Age for Investigating Progress

Written by Lea Degen on July 12, 2021

The need to educate around human achievement is timeless, and the developmental opportunities in educating on the Great Enrichment are as enormous as they are untapped. But the timing of our initiative and coursework on progress education is not arbitrary. We are just now entering a time in which research on progress is becoming an explicit pursuit in various disciplines, both inside and outside of the academy. We are on the cusp of a golden age for investigating progress. 

Important groundwork for these efforts has been laid for many years. Of course, the very ideas that motivate any writing on this topic largely originated in the 1700s, the age of the Enlightenment. They were the catalyst that gave rise to our modern world. Throughout the few centuries since, thinkers have been deeply influenced by those ideas, building upon and refining them, and occasionally, incorporating them into a contemporary framework to again make a case for their present validity. 

The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch (2011) is a prominent effort to both defend the ideas of the Enlightenment and illuminate them as the enablers of past, and future, progress.

In The Beginning of Infinity, Deutsch formulates the “Principle of Optimism,” which states that all evils are caused by insufficient knowledge. Deutsch asserts that knowledge is attainable by the methods of reason and science. He emphasizes the necessity of societies that tolerate and attempt change, if we are to increase that knowledge. Societies that routinely critique their currently-held theories and hold firm cultural norms of critical thinking advance by surpassing the flawed theories by formulating better ones. Deutsch states that problems are inevitable—but he sees this as all but a case for frustration or apathy:

“Problems are inevitable, because our knowledge will always be infinitely far from complete. Some problems are hard, but it is a mistake to confuse hard problems with problems unlikely to be solved. Problems are soluble, and each particular evil is a problem that can be solved.” [1]

Deutsch classifies every solved problem as an instance of further progress that expands our knowledge and opens a new frontier of problems in need of a solution. He places an immense value on human agency, echoing Karl Popper, whom he quotes in the opening of his chapter on Optimism: 

“The possibilities that lie in the future are infinite. When I say ‘It is our duty to remain optimists,’ this includes not only the openness of the future but also that which all of us contribute to it by everything we do: we are all responsible for what the future holds in store. Thus, it is our duty, not to prophesy evil but, rather, to fight for a better world.”  [2]

While the contents of their writings differ, Montessori was also a firm believer in human agency. A growth mindset was core to views of children individually and humanity as a whole. Numerous times, she commented on the progress that humankind had achieved and its potential for future advances: 

“Throughout time, man enriches himself and acquires new capabilities. It is from the perfectibility of mankind that progress derives its origin and development.” [3]

She also emphasized the necessity to probe into humanity’s past to better understand our present. To be effective in improving our societies, we would need to engage with and iterate upon the big ideas that shaped our sophisticated world: 

“If we are to realize the magnitude of the aims achieved by humanity, and envisage those of the future, we should meditate on the various stages of human evolution, study the science from which it takes its name and scrutinize its history.” [4]

From Montessori's understanding of evolvable morality to her views of a conquerable material world, Montessori’s various writings reveal a reverence for human dynamism.

Many great thinkers have defended Enlightenment values and their role as the source of rapid human progress. But, we have not yet explicitly explored Deutsch’s appeal to combat ignorance in relation to the occurrence of progress itself. Even if we embrace Enlightenment ideas (nowadays a cultural challenge in itself), even if we successfully recognize the importance of free thought and speech – which funding mechanisms, organizational structures, or incentive designs must exist to increase our chances of reaping more fruits of progress? Can we probe deeper into the study of progress itself? 

This thinking precisely has motivated recent efforts to create a new field: Progress Studies. A 2019 Atlantic article by Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen, aptly titled “We Need a New Science for Progress” crystallized and sloganized this movement. The piece makes a case for a systematic study of the economic, cultural, scientific, and technological advancements that radically changed and improved living standards over the last few centuries—with the underlying aim of applying the gained knowledge to speed up progress today. 

Though the field of Progress Studies is still nascent, there has been a noticeable impact from having a label under which the previously scattered efforts of individuals and small groups can now unite and interact. Online publications, group chats, and meetups have been created. Work in various academic disciplines is surfacing and interrelating under a clear heading. The momentum in this growing ecosystem adds legitimacy to the idea that the study of progress has been a blind spot, historically, and currently represents an opportunity for research and thought-development.

Additionally, modern tools enable complex and detailed research in this evolving discipline. Organizations like Our World in Data provide comprehensive, quantitative information on world trends. This data makes illuminates both improvements in critical metrics like literacy, child mortality, general life expectancy, and poverty, as well as measures (or geographies or demographics) on which progress remains static. Montessori has asserted that in education, we should not preach but help understand. In research, just as in curricula, unambiguous information is a necessary step in that direction.

As with any discipline, bringing Progress Studies into the classroom requires more than pure subject expertise: we also need a deep understanding of pedagogy. Here, the Montessori pedagogy is uniquely well-positioned as a framework for progress education. Montessori education is driven at its core by the notion of human achievement—both for the individual and humanity at large. It is stunning how much of the progress mindset is seen throughout Montessori’s writings, whether she addresses child development or humanity explicitly. Often, what is said about the former is true for the latter and vice versa. Montessori sees human life in general as a process of achievement, from building oneself up from birth to inventing or commercializing tools that can benefit humanity at large:

“We have only to look at civilization to realize the greatness of which man is capable. But we are focused on his errors and mistakes, not on his greatness. The fault lies with us. Think how many things man has created—the wireless, to mention but one. Look around at all we have—small, great or beautiful—whatever it is, it has been created by man. But while asking for more and more of these marvelous inventions, we never think of the man that created them. We do not consider him at all. Although we try to do everything we can to enhance our comfort, we do not consider the greatness of man, we only consider his defects. We do not consider man, the creator. Therefore I say we must refocus our hearts. We must be the creations of man at the center, and not his defects.

We must adopt the same attitude towards the child. When we see the miracle of a child walking, we take no notice because it is a daily occurrence. And yet we correct all his small peccadilloes. How much fuller and richer life would be if we saw the child in all his greatness, all his beauty, instead of focusing on all his little mistakes? These are so great in our eyes that they lead us to despondency because we see baseness all the time. Our aim is to study the child from this new point of view. With this change in our hearts we will want to study him in all his different phases, to study all his miracles, to realize how man reaches the stage of man through the child that constructs him.” [5]

While these ideas still remain on the periphery of traditional curricula, we zeroed in on them and made them into a priority in our students’ education. We think that learning about the past achievements that got us here – from the life in tribes to the founding of our modern governing structures to the mechanisms and inventions driving the Industrial Revolution – is immensely motivational. We want our students to establish an integrated perspective on history and the world around them. As Montessori would say, the goal is to “bring the child into the world”: to ensure that passed-down knowledge about our civilization is kept alive, that we understand the context from which our current world emerged.

The Progress Studies movement, Montessori’s ideas, and Higher Ground’s mission can work together to achieve this goal. The convergence of the three forms a powerful opportunity to enchant new generations with the wonder of human potential and their own role in shaping the world in an extensive line of critical thinkers who understand and feel purpose in acting on the world.

1. Deutsch, D. (2011) The Beginning of Infinity.

2. Popper, K. (1994)“The Myth of the Framework ”. Excerpt from Deutsch, D. (2011) The Beginning of Infinity.

3. Montessori, M. (1949) San Remo Lectures.

4. Ibid.

5. Montessori, M. (1946) The 1946 London Lectures.

Lea Degen

Lea Degen is an Emergent Ventures Fellow and undergraduate, currently working on projects related to technological and scientific progress. She hosts the podcast Frontiers and tweets @lealeata.