Names stick, and we have to make use of them. We might think that socialism is antisocial, that capitalism destroys human capital, that communism doesn’t benefit the community. But we are not at liberty to invent new names for everything. Shared communication depends upon a certain amount of agreement about the terms being used, and discussion is impossible without it.
We can’t change the names, but we can interrogate them and probe their implications. One of the most common terms in the education debate is ‘progressive’. This word implies an onward march into the future, and a belief that the future will be better than the past. It is tied to the Whig view of British history, in which the British people have provided the world with a shining example of rejecting the constraints of tyrannical social structures rooted in past oppression and mental darkness, and moving ever onwards to greater liberty and self-determination.
Whiggish sentiments have combined with Romantic individualism in the last two hundred years to produce a more radical view of progress. In this view, we have a duty to reject the shackles of any dead, stuffy book learning that would constrain our individual self-determination. The Whigs celebrated particular historical events which were seen as landmarks on the road to liberty: the Magna Carta, the Civil War, the Glorious Revolution of 1688. But such landmarks are hardly important for the modern progressive, who is more likely to dismiss them as the power games of privileged white men. What we have now is a perpetual revolution in the life of every individual. Thus it is hardly surprising to see the Little Red Book being brandished in Parliament. Progress has gone into overdrive and the past must be utterly rejected. This is the era of Chairman Mao, not Oliver Cromwell. Surely it is only a matter of time before Cromwell’s statue is toppled.
There was a logic to the Whig narrative, regardless of whether one agreed that its overall direction was worth celebrating. But our postmodern notion of progress has lost all substance. It even dismisses substance as oppressive, seeing the inculcation of any definite knowledge whatsoever as a tyrannical oppression of young minds. Everyone must start from scratch and invent themselves from nothing, like the veritable spirit of God hovering over the void. Fitzgerald perceived this with his quintessential modern hero, Gatsby, who ‘sprang from his Platonic conception of himself’.
But Gatsby is a fraud who cannot detach himself from his past, and his attempts to do so lead to his destruction. We are ‘borne back ceaselessly into the past’. Whether for good or ill, we have come from somewhere, and we won’t know how to move onwards until we have understood our origins. Modernists like Fitzgerald recognised that we had lost something. Postmodernism celebrates the loss as liberation, as though an orphan saw their loneliness as freedom.
Thus there are two fundamental ironies in the current use of the word ‘progressive’. Firstly, ‘progress’ in human affairs has come to mean a frantic movement in an indeterminate direction. With no objective standard to guide the movement, how do we even know we are going forwards? Having lost our compass, we have come to identify liberty with wandering in a trackless waste.
The second irony is both a cause and a consequence of the first. Having condemned the past as nothing but tyranny and oppression, because our ancestors dared to have objective and fixed standards, we now refuse to pass on to succeeding generations the great ideas of the past. If we touch on them at all, it is with a prim self-righteous confidence in how inferior those poor bigoted, benighted people were. And if our ancestors were all so ignorant and prejudiced, why bother listening to them at all? If Shakespeare was a racist, aren’t we better off reading Benjamin Zephaniah?
But, as any scientist will tell you, progress in human thought depends upon two things. You must know where you are going, and you must pick up where others left off. The natural sciences have, in fact, remained firmly traditional in their approach. It is obvious that no individual could start from scratch here and hope to make any progress; the sum of knowledge is far too great. But oddly enough, in the arts and humanities, no such reality is recognised. It’s almost as though we think humanity is the one part of nature exempt from any law.
If progress means moving forwards towards a definite goal, then to be progressive, we must be traditional. Only with a knowledge of the past can we move purposefully forwards. But maybe being purposeful just isn’t that much fun. Perhaps we’ve come to prefer emptiness. At least it exempts us from all duties.