Ronald Wright reminds us that history can help us prevent the “Progress Trap”

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Photo courtesy of wikimedia

Ryan Saxby Hill
Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences

“Humans understand each other by watching behaviour through time” - Ronald Wright

I was lucky enough to attend the International Conference on Liberal Arts last month at St. Thomas University. The event was a great opportunity to connect with our members and find out what we can do to help ensure a viable future for humanities research and teaching. One of the highlights of the three-day event was the Friday keynote from Richard Wright, a great thinker on the state of our civilization. In his lecture The Future of the Past: Escaping the Parochialism of the Present, Wright took a refreshing and intelligent look at how maintaining our perspective of the past is one of our most important hedges against communal self-destruction.

Wright argues that the biggest advantage that we have over the failed civilizations of the past is that we can come to know those civilizations and how they failed. When we lose the perspective of history, we lose our perspective on progress. Wright pointed out that we’re only really been around as a species for 70 lifetimes of 70 years – more than enough time for us to be able to try a couple of failed civilizations. Our scholars in the liberal arts are the guides that can package these 70 lifetimes of experience and turn them into something that we can understand and learn from.

History is our guide for this learning, and Wright argues that we’ve been ignoring this history. Our struggle for progress has betrayed a needed humility that we as a civilization need for survival. We’re overextended, over-consuming and unprepared for a genuinely stable survival.

Given all of this... it’s probably not the time to undermine our most well-equipped historical tour guides. The temptation is to ignore warnings and those offering them. In this time of economic “crisis” we can tend to focus on utilitarian investments in research and education. The thinking is that we can get better short-term gain from investments in technology, business, applied learning, etc. Let’s be sure not lose our patience for history.

“Walls go up in times of crisis – and the thickest walls are in the mind,” stated Wright - an important point, for a conference hoping to arm the guides that we need as a culture and a civilization.

Ronald Wright is the author of the A Short History of Progress – the 2004 Massey Lecture. His most recent book is What is America? A short history of the new world order. If you missed our first post on the International Conference on the Liberal Arts, you can find it online here