No place in the world illustrates the idea of improvement better, in my opinion, than Florence’s Uffizi Museum. There, in the city at the epicenter of the Renaissance, you can witness the dawning understanding that real-world vision beats politically correct vision every time.
Here’s how you experience that: As you walk through the halls, the artwork gradually shifts from beautiful but gloomy altarpieces to light-filled paintings featuring lifelike people in lifelike environments. Artists had begun using optics to create linear perspective. Art was OK before, but now it began to look like life as seen by the human eye, not as life was supposed to look because of tradition or clerical directive.
This was both a breath of fresh air and a disturbing new way of thinking. Real-world perspective in art arrived at the same time it did in science, economics, and politics. Individuals were challenging assumptions about how the world should look. That opened the floodgates. From celestial mechanics to the printing press, from the shocking pragmatism of Niccolò Machiavelli to the adventurous navigating of Christoforo Colombo, new thinking exploded. Renaissance, Reformation, and scientific discovery were unshackled.
Pat answers about the world no longer were acceptable. No matter what you thought ought to be, people began challenging authority and each other – experimenting, questioning, tinkering, exploring. In its more disciplined form, this is called the scientific method. For all of us amateurs, it is something like the impulse for improvement.
The world got better as a result. In the half-millennium that has followed the Renaissance, people have been living longer, lives have been more interesting, individual freedom has increased. Oh, there have been some terrible chapters along the way – unconscionable wars, famines, wrongheaded ideologies, and absurd cults of personality. The world remains a work in progress. Still, you wouldn’t want to trade places with someone who lived before the Renaissance – or even a decade before this one. And maybe not even last year.
The beautiful thing about the scientific era that we live in is that we have real-world information to back up our assertions. The Freedom House organization, for instance, has tracked indicators of freedom for 193 nations since 1973. The ranks of the free and partly free have risen from 54 percent to 76 percent over the past 37 years. The numbers fluctuate year to year. Sometimes countries backslide. But the trend is clear.
Indur Goklany, in his encouraging book “The Improving State of the World,” argues persuasively that economic freedom and technological advancement have made the world better by almost every measure. This has “redefined the role of women and children, restructured the workplace, undermined age-old arrangements of caste and class, expanded the middle class, and developed new institutions and organizations.” Environmental problems and social disruptions are not trivial concerns, he writes, but overall “we’re living longer, healthier, more comfortable lives on a cleaner planet.”
I don’t think I’m going out on a limb in saying that the one thing we all have in common is that we want a better world next year than this. The desire for improvement – for making tomorrow better than today, giving kids a jump start, learning a foreign language, forming a more perfect union – is a shared human desire, whether you are someone daubing paint on canvas in the 15th century or a counterterrorism specialist in the 21st.
Good is never good enough. And the best, while an important aspiration, is an ever-receding horizon. We never quite get there. We keep trying. That makes the world better.
As the days wind down in 2010, most of us look back with a mixture of pride and regret. We know we can do better. We thumb through the 2011 calendar with an abundance of hope. All those blank dates. Imagine the possibilities! If we can be more active, creative, diligent, loving, 2011 could be epic.
All of us want a better world. That’s not just a New Year’s wish. By objective measurements, we are actually getting it.
John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor.