If you haven’t seen Tim Burke’s characteristically thoughtful reflections on where we are now, take a look. It’s a contemplative piece about being caught between the practical need for hope and the clear-eyed recognition that there are no guarantees.
His reading of Nietzsche is a bit sunnier than mine, but never mind that. He’s outlining the tension between two strains of American pragmatism, though he doesn’t use that word.
One strain, exemplified by Peirce and Dewey, draws on a Hegelian sense that we’re stumbling _towards_ something. We may not know quite what it is, but we know we’re getting closer, and we know that if we keep trying, we’ll get closer still. It’s a lab-science approach to life, familiar to fans of “progressive” education and progressivism generally. It’s hugely popular among educators, for obvious reasons, even if they don’t necessarily know where it came from.
The other, drawing on Nietzsche and exemplified by William James and (grudgingly) Richard Rorty, concedes that any notion of progress is largely post-hoc, but also concedes that it’s sometimes useful anyway. (Interestingly, James had a lifelong distaste for lab science.) It’s the school that says that morality may be a human invention, but that’s no reason to discard it or take it lightly. It’s a reason instead to take responsibility for it. You break it, you bought it.
The second camp is sometimes caricatured as relativist, but that assumes the existence of a point from which to make that call. I find the second camp honest and even invigorating, in that it opens up the possibility of conscious action. If we recognize that the way we treat others is a choice, then we can choose differently. I find value in the narrative that says that we get better when we expand the circle of who counts as “us.” That expansion takes work, whether political, social, economic, or personal. It happens in fits and starts, and sometimes doesn’t happen. But when it does, we’re all better in palpable ways.
From the perspective of the second camp, moral progress isn’t inevitable. Constant change is. Progress in the sense of expanding who counts as “us” is a choice. We make that choice in a myriad of ways, from fostering open-access institutions to addressing people by the names they want to be called. Some will make a different choice, and it’s reasonable to hold them responsible for that. They didn’t have to. And the threat they pose to progress is real, because progress is fragile. It’s only as strong as we are. We can’t assume that Hegel’s “cunning of history” will save us. We have to save ourselves.
I think that’s part of why I’m so fascinated by institutions, and why I’m willing to wade through the administrivia that comes with them. Institutions are flawed, complicated, constructed, semi-permanent instantiations of choices. They can be unthinkingly (or deliberately) brutal, but they can also make possible moments of greatness that otherwise could never exist. Colleges themselves are remarkable seedbeds of greatness; they’re organized -- in their flawed and even maddening ways -- around helping people contribute more, in their ways, to the project of “us.” As institutions, they’re subject to all manner of crosswinds and agendas -- longtime readers may have seen me mention those once or twice -- but that’s all the more reason to tend to them. Colleges aren’t inevitable. They’re breakable. There are those who would like nothing more than to break them. Others fail to understand that making them brittle, opposing all change, makes them that much easier to break.
Colleges are just one example, of course, and not the most important one. But they’re where I can make my own contribution, whether by my day job or in thinking through its dilemmas in writing and in dialogue with others. Everyone has some way to help the project of expanding the circle of “us.” It starts with respect, humility, and a willingness to listen. It continues with a constant series of efforts to push out the walls a little farther each time, to bring more people in. And it requires saying no, as forcefully as we have to, to those who would build the walls ever higher. History won’t do that for us. We have to do it over and over again, in the ways that we engage with the world. There’s no guarantee it’ll work, but I can’t imagine a better wager.