Knowledge: People and Their Influences

(influences on humanity including those from the past and the present)

Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education. The human mind is our fundamental resource.
—John F. Kennedy
Not to know what happened before one was born is always to be a child.

Human Progress Has Had Its Highs and Lows

The voluminous literature dealing with the idea of human progress is decidedly a mixed bag. While some of these writings are impressive and even inspiring, many of them are superficial, perhaps even ridiculous, in their reiteration (especially during the nineteenth century) of the comforting prospect that every day in every way we are growing better and better.

Are we really getting better everyday in every way?

This kind of foolishness is manifested especially in discussions of such matters as economic, political, and moral progress, and of progress in art. In fact, it is hard to argue effectively for the proposition that progress in mankind's overall wealth, in general governance, in the average or typical behavior of human beings, or in the production of great works of art has occurred over the entire history of the human race on earth.

From time to time, there seems to be real and measurable improvement in these areas. At other times the opposite seems equally to be the case. Thus the fervent belief of writers like the French sociophilosopher Aususte Comte in the inevitability of progress in all fields of human endeavor must be viewed as insupportable. We cannot accept it any longer, even if we once thought it was true.

Progress in Knowledge

Progress in human knowledge is another matter. Here it is possible to argue cogently that progress is in the nature of things. The essence of humans as a rational beings is that they develop their potential capacities by accumulating the experiences of past generations.

We can still learn from the past by utilizing the store of knowledge that is available!

Just as in our individual lives we learn more and more from day to day and from year to year because we remember some at least of what we have learned and add our new knowledge to it, so in the history of the human race the collective memory retains at least some knowledge from the past to which is added every new discovery.

The knowledge that expands and accumulates is of several kinds. We know more today about how nature works than we knew a hundred year ago, or a thousand, and we can expect to know even more a hundred years from now. It is easy to understand and accept the idea of progress in technology, and to be optimistic about its continuing into the foreseeable future. [Here's hoping he is right!]

—Compiled from excerpts in
A History of Knowledge Past, Present, and Future;
by Charles Van Doren; Ballantine Books; New York; 1991; pages xv-xvi (Introduction).