It Is Getting Better All the Time, Right?

sgt peppersThe Beatles believed such was so.  Progress.  That grand idea of recent centuries has had a profound effect upon current educational theory.  Man learns from his mistakes so as to not make them again.  Man is becoming better at being man.  Someday, some would say, there will only be one man left upon the earth, the Last Man, as all others will have evolved beyond man to whatever is above that species.  The German Ubermensch has become a fascination for movie goers with yet another Superman movie coming out very soon.  As I read and think about this idea, the following seem to be a starting list of ways in which the progressive idea of “Progress” has changed or affected education in our day:

  • What was true for the past has little or no bearing on the present.  Thus Social Studies (studies of what is true now) is more appropriate than History.
  • With constant progress comes constant change.  Nothing stays the same; all things are getting better, so our methods, ideas, plans, goals, purposes, etc. should all be constantly updated.
  • New is good; old is bad.  In everything this holds true: values, definitions, subjects, courses/curriculum, etc. all bow to the newest, the latest.
  • Progress is built upon rational thought and scientific process.  Science will show us each successive progressive step.
  • Much of progress is seen in letting go of the past – superstition, religion, tradition, myth, etc. are all a part of what must be overcome if we are to become better.
  • Progression begets temporary notions.  Planning for much beyond our own moment is ludicrous because of this dogma of progress – we don’t know where we are going, so simply doing “the best” (ie. the newest idea) is what is important.
  • Progress is measured in terms of overcoming nature.  The more we can figure ways around nature and how to manipulate nature to our ends, the more progressive we become.

I believe this could go on at length, but the last point is my jumping off point.  The first real point of comparison between the Road and the Wheel is this point of how the two relate to the natural.  Road educators tend to be nominalists.  They deny real nature for anything, and instead believe the nature of something is what we as men say it is.  So the world we live is ours to be reformed for our purposes.  The Wheel educator seeks rather to teach students how to live responsibly and well within a reality that for the most part man cannot change.

The differences here are huge.  For the Christian, this is no less true.  I find Christians on both sides of this debate.  There are certainly Christian educators who teach purposefully that the earth is ours to be used for the Glory of God, but then define such in a way that belies their belief that man must overcome nature.  The other Christian, the one thinking more as a wheel, seeks atonement with nature.  God is not in the process of bringing out of this world, but in redeeming this world with us in it.  This leads such an educator to seek to show students how to live within the world, as a part of it, and a rather fragile part of it at that.  It includes an education in what has come before, what is now, and what shall be after we die.  It does not see man as a species getting better or worse, but rather living within the world God has placed him in.

This is the difference between conquest and atonement.

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Overview of Specifics from “Road and Wheel”

Having stated earlier Berry’s main point with the “Road and Wheel” metaphor, I want to lay out what will be several up coming meditations on the specifics from his essay, “Discipline and Hope.”

Here is his own chart showing the contrasts between these two ways:

Linear Cyclic
Progress. The conquest of nature. Atonement with the creation.
The Promised Land motif in the Westward Movement. Black Elk’s sacred hoop, the community of creation.
Heavenly aspiration without earthly reconciliation or stewardship. The creation as commodity. Reconciliation of heaven and earth in aspiration toward responsible life. The creation as source and end.
Training, programming. Education. Cultural process.
Possession. Usufruct, relinquishment.
Quantity. Quality.
Newness. The unique and “original.” Renewal. The recurring.
Life. Life and death.

fr. Wendell Berry, Discipline and Hope, p. 137

I will develop each of these in turn by relating them to our views of education in upcoming blogs.