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Why progress endures

The rise and fall of civilizations is the drama of history. But quiet progress -- century by century, civilization by civilization -- is the real story to watch.

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Is progress an illusion, a blip of hope before the next catastrophe strikes?

If you study history, you know that the tensions, conflicts, foibles, and causes we see today have happened repeatedly in earlier eras and that to the people of that time progress must have felt unstoppable. Pride usually precedes the fall.

 But even if civilization is cyclical, progress is different. Progress doesn’t rise or fall. It accumulates day by day, century by century.

The idea of progress – the conviction that there is a long wave of human betterment despite the ups and downs in the news – is central to the journalistic mission of the Monitor. You can see that in how we report the news, zeroing in on problems but then seeking ideas and people trying to solve those problems. 

Last summer, the Monitor launched an even more direct way of monitoring progress. Under the guidance of Monitor Weekly editor Clay Collins, Points of Progress highlights encouraging news from around the globe with a browsable graphic. (The digital edition lets you dive deeper into the ones that interest you. To subscribe: http://tinyurl.com/kwyc62d.)

Week by week, the points accumulate. Progress works that way.

One of the best arguments for progress being more than wishful thinking is contained in “The Lessons of History,” a slim volume that Will and Ariel Durant wrote after spending half a century researching and writing their magisterial series, “The Story of Civilization.” Like their 11-volume epic, their lessons-of book grapples with the recurring pattern of civilizational birth, growth, and decay. The key question, and the title of their concluding chapter, is “Is Progress Real?”

It is tempting to think that progress is just “the vain and traditional boast of each ‘modern’ generation,” they write. Boasts grow old and modernity fades. Progress, however, builds. “If progress is real despite our whining, it is not because we are born any healthier, better, or wiser than infants were in the past, but because we are born to a richer heritage, born on a higher level of that pedestal which the accumulation of knowledge and art raises as the ground and support of our being. The heritage rises, and man rises in proportion as he receives it.”

Earlier in their book, the Durants acknowledged that the history in which they had immersed themselves rarely recorded quiet progress: “Behind the red façade of war and politics, misfortune and poverty, adultery and divorce, murder and suicide, were millions of orderly homes, devoted marriages, men and women kindly and affectionate, troubled and happy with children.” 

They don’t make headlines. But each is a point of progress. And the points add up – day by day, century by century. That’s the real story of civilization.

John Yemma is editor-at-large of the Monitor. He can be reached at yemma@csmonitor.com.

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