philosophy

What is progress?

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I contemplate progress through Ernest Hemingway’s maxim – “never confuse movement with action.”

As a teacher I ought to say that progress is quantifiable through rigorous assessment during 12 years of formal education. However, education often appears to resemble movement under duress. Much of our modern education is about compliance with set curriculum, testing to establish standards and allocating percentages to students to facilitate their swift processing through the system. It seems we are less interested in the individual’s progress than in their results that will justify the efficacy of the system.

Authentic progress is a series of internal shifts for which there is no accurate means of measurement. An individual’s progress is determined by the context of their lives. There is no universal standard for personal progress. Social or institutional criteria of progress are set and administered for the benefit of the organisation to which the individual belongs. An improvement in social standards and education does not equate to progress. History reflects that an educated society can be swayed by the demands of irrational and psychotic dictators.

Progress is not a state of being, a process or even an objective. It is an abstract social artefact, a dialect of power. Like truth, justice and equality it is a language that those in power speak to synchronise the social machine they control. It creates the illusion of concern for the individual.

After 25 years of teaching I have past students who have become doctors, CEO’s and leaders in their chosen field. They have advanced spectacularly. However, the student whose progress made the most lasting impression on me was the young man who, after spending 18 months in detention, whispered to me “I can’t read and I want to. Can you teach me?” Some students acquire knowledge because they can, some to satisfy parental ambitions and some because they know that this is what is expected of them. They move. A minority of students pursue knowledge to sate their curiosity of the world. They understand that knowledge is a personal quest for which reward is irrelevant. They progress. I have told fretful parents that their children are ‘making progress’ to assuage parental neurosis and relieve myself of lengthy philosophical diatribe. Most students get to where they need to go despite their parents and the education system that has formed them.

Young people will navigate their unique path through and beyond school. Their progress will depend on the quality of their humanity, not their qualifications. Progress in schools may reflect the student’s ability to comply more than their personal development. Education is like a waltz. Instead of assessing who has danced and how they danced we should be teaching the dancers to appreciate the music. Would Sisyphus be progressing each time he summited the mountain with his boulder? Perhaps mankind’s progress is an ongoing struggle with himself? We must assess progress alongside our brutality and our ability to be gentle. We are all born into the species Homo sapiens, not everyone progresses to become human.

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