Paying Contingency Its Due

Written by Lea Degen on December 11, 2021

The study of progress matters both in paying homage to our ancestors and in motivating further efforts that will affect present lives and those of future generations. But, present mainstream education greatly diverges from Montessori’s ideal of helping children gain an awareness of the technological marvels powering our modern world. Most children never become industrially literate. They never learn about the true significance of the great enrichment; they never get exposed to the relentlessly working men and women who enabled the inventions that shaped our modern world. Nor do they learn about the contributions of the industrialists that brought these incredible technologies to the masses.

We take for granted our present world which provides incredible levels of daily material comfort. All the while, we mostly ignore its hidden enabler: the world of industry. Upon reflection, it becomes obvious that our past progress depended on conscious choices of motivated individuals; that the companies, technologies, and processes we rely on every day were never guaranteed to be founded, discovered, or developed. Yet, this truth is sometimes obscured in the motions of everyday life and communications: few think to look back on history and consciously appreciate the true significance of human achievement.

Without a culture of appreciation for past progress, it is no surprise that many young adults today are not enchanted about the future. Rather, they are mainly pessimistic or neutral about it instead. This outlook is problematic as it creates much anxiety in teens—a situation that might be different if our extraordinary progress was clearly communicated—and it also has implications for the wellbeing of future generations, as further efforts to advance today require the knowledge that progress is possible: a firm, steadfast belief in human potential and achievement.

For an effort in any given direction to take place, the world has to be seen not as a fixed system that renders us helpless, but as malleable, problems seen as a set of engineering challenges to be overcome by human ingenuity. How we feel about progress matters to whether or not we progress further. And work on important advancements is yet to be exhausted, as Tyler Cowen and Patrick Collison assert:

“We still need a lot of progress. We haven’t yet cured all diseases; we don’t yet know how to solve climate change; we’re still a very long way from enabling most of the world’s population to live as comfortably as the wealthiest people do today; we don’t yet understand how best to predict or mitigate all kinds of natural disasters; we aren’t yet able to travel as cheaply and quickly as we’d like; we could be far better than we are at educating young people. The list of opportunities for improvement is still extremely long.”[2]

We often view the past through rose-colored glasses. Popular reflections on modern technology by media and political pundits are quite often negative, while people yearn for days before its introduction. Surely, some of these concerns are valid. Material progress certainly does not exclusively ensure moral progress. Yet, when discussing the great improvements in living standards over the past centuries—enormous increases in wealth, an explosion in literacy, and the eradication of diseases that used to cost millions of lives—it is hard to discount them in favor of a romanticized past whose true nature has become obscured in modern times. Through gaining a better understanding of our species’ history, we should learn to refrain from yearning for an imagined past that discounts the harsh realities of everyday life prior to the technological and scientific revolutions: this rosy vision of the “good old days” is a past that never was.

It is a serious mistake to apply blanket statements to the effects and implications of modern technology. Seeing it as the root of all evil, or the sole source of a good life commits the same fallacy of superficiality.

Rather, we should look at desirable individual characteristics of historical and modern systems, whether of the past or present, and consider how to integrate them into a modern age without appeals to technological regress. We should find ways to make our tools and institutions work for us, to create the most humane social and physical technology possible. We are still a long way from achieving this goal. But importantly, we must properly diagnose the sources of our present troubles, whether they are issues of misaligned economic incentives or dysfunctional political institutions. Our systems are not God-given, such that flaws were inevitable in the past and continue to be in the future. We, as humans, have agency over our future.

We need to teach future generations to understand this. A recognition of historical contingency, coupled with an emphasis on human agency, should shape the next generation to see itself as able to purposefully act on the world.

“Beyond everything I should work to inspire a faith in the greatness of man, the greatness that has been proven by enormous progress. Make clear to them man’s place in the world as the improver of the environment of nature, how he has always struggled on, despite being weighed down by so many moral defects. Help them to face up to and understand these moral defects that have crept into all the wonderful things that he has created. They do aspire for something fine, they have a faith in life; but each year that they live in the world they see these institutions of man to be so full of corruption that they attempt to disregard or destroy them. Instead we should help them to understand exactly where the moral corruption lies, and then they can do their best to be free of it.”[3]

Though she lived through the tumultuous era of two world wars and a global economic collapse, Dr. Maria Montessori refused to give up on human potential. Whereas many of her contemporaries adopted defeatist attitudes toward the human condition (which, against the historical backdrop, were quite understandable) she doubled-down on her conviction that creating a new approach to education was required—then, more than ever. It was apparent to her that technological progress had greatly outpaced moral progress. Wisdom had not been gained in equal measure to intelligence. Yet, characteristic of her enduring belief in human potential, Montessori aimed to further moral progress through detailed study of humanity’s past shortcomings and how we overcome them:

In Montessori’s view, we cannot afford an attitude of defeat, in either the moral or technological realm. Despising humanity or mitigating our immense achievements will not motivate the work toward a future of higher moral ground. Likewise, in an industrially advanced age with billions of people aspiring to better living conditions, turning off the engine of economic growth, which is fueled by advances in science and technology, is not a viable option. It is certainly worth rethinking structures that are maladapted to our present needs—but this can only happen through an understanding of our past and present.

When we forget where our modern world came from and discount the role of human potential, our structures—under-studied and misunderstood—become brittle. Exposed to popular sentiments of the present day, they face a serious threat of being overtaken by less industrially-literate actors and altered to the detriment of continued progress. Furthermore, without properly understanding our structures’ original logic we cannot constructively fix the parts that might not be working today. We have to understand them in order to improve them. Thus, having an integrated perspective on history and the world around oneself is a prerequisite for functioning efficiently to make it better.

The history of the present is enormously important, and not only the present but its roots in the past through which much of the present can be understood.”[4]

No hollow statement to stop worrying about the future will fix the widespread lack of optimism. Montessori firmly believed that in order to love and value anything—whether human beings, oneself, or the outside world—nothing could substitute for the need to understand. Thus, to bridge the gap between progress and the sentiments toward it, we need to teach the technological, scientific, and economic innovations that enabled increases in wealth, lifespan, and literacy for billions of people around the globe. With a solid curriculum of progress studies, we can help bring the next generations a future even brighter than our predecessors could have possibly imagined.

[1] Montessori, M. (1989) The Child, Society, and the World.

[2] Collison, P. and Cowen, T. (2019) We Need a New Science of Progress. (

[3] Montessori, M. (1989) The Child, Society, and the World.

[4] Ibid.