Making Progress

Colin Dickey
Jul 31 · 8 min read

Writing in The Atlantic, Tyler Cowen and Patrick Collison propose a new academic discipline: Progress Studies. I had some fun on Twitter critiquing it, but the more I thought about it the more I realized it deserved a serious comment. So here, in the spirit of both generosity towards the authors and towards the many academics, researchers and other practitioners that are maligned in this article, is an attempt at a more fulsome discussion of what’s at stake with Cowen and Collison’s proposed Progress Studies.

The initial question in the piece is a simple definitional one — what is “progress”? Much of the specific definition of progress we’re given is curiously abstract: “By ‘progress,’ we mean the combination of economic, technological, scientific, cultural, and organizational advancement that has transformed our lives and raised standards of living over the past couple of centuries.” Saying that by “progress” you mean “advancement” is tautological, “transformed our lives” is meaningless (the wide availability of semi-automatic assault rifles in this country has transformed our lives — is this progress?), so all we’re left with is that progress means raising the standard of living. Which is great; I also think everyone’s standard of living should be raised. Because I believe in simplicity, let’s just say that: Cowen and Collison think universities should be working to raise our collective standard of living.

They then go on to list a number of things we still need progress on: disease, climate change, economic disparity, natural disaster response, leisure travel, education. It’s a pretty good list! Maybe some people would add or subtract something here or there, but it seems like their hearts are in the right place. Okay, so the goal of Progress Studies is to tackle problems like this to generally raise our standards of living throughout the globe. They also believe that there have been some cultures or specific communities throughout history that have been better at devising solutions to these problems; Progress Studies would be a way of studying these different communities and how to foster them.

Progress studies, the authors explain, “would study the successful people, organizations, institutions, policies, and cultures that have arisen to date, and it would attempt to concoct policies and prescriptions that would help improve our ability to generate useful progress in the future.” Already, the stated goals above have shifted: we are not studying progress but the environments that have produced progress. Here is my initial question: why not just work on solving the problems themselves? Why do we have to study how to produce a community to solve climate change, when we can just work on solving climate change? What is the purpose of adding an extra step?

No longer is Progress Studies concerned with solving something like poverty itself; it’s now concerned with generating the increasingly abstract “useful progress,” as though progress was itself a sort of fungible commodity. What is the metric by which useful progress is measured? If I’m skeptical, it’s because if there’s one thing that almost never raises the standard of living, it’s the creation of new jargon. If you want to study how to fix a thing, study the thing; don’t create a meta-level field of study meant to study the other thing that might ultimately produce the fix for the original thing.

The problem, the authors continue, is that too much important academic work is happening in isolation, and not being brought together. Progress Studies, in other words, is basically a cross-disciplinary field meant to bring together different fields and encourage them to communicate. This, too, seems fine, though it already happens — interdisciplinary research happens all across the university, all the time. Some individual faculty may be resistant, and there’s occasionally hiccups between differing research cultures or methodologies, but for the most part it’s already happening.

It’s not clear — at least from this article — how aware of this the authors are of this. There is a long paragraph about education, how psychometrics, sociology, anthropology, economics, and so forth all study different aspects but don’t communicate. But the authors never mention that there is in fact a central field — Education — where all these various aspects of teaching are brought together under the rubric of “pedagogy,” a field of study that predates Progress Studies by several millennia. Further, given the preponderance of Creationists on school boards, the lobbying money spent by standardized test companies, or the naked corruption at the Department of Education — it seems weirdly naïve to assert that the reason we haven’t gotten education figured out is because academics aren’t collaborating. Unaware of the breadth and scope of the field of Education, the authors instead, confusingly, invoke a Malcolm Gladwell concept (“There’s a lively debate about when and whether “10,000 hours of practice” are required for truly excellent performance”), as though their understanding of these concepts come not from diligent research but from TED talks or self-help bestsellers.

Again, it would be easier to assess the ideas here if the authors had been clearer on their definitions. When they write, “For a number of reasons, there is no broad-based intellectual movement focused on understanding the dynamics of progress, or targeting the deeper goal of speeding it up,” it’s hard not to think they’re actually describing the field of History, which is a broad-based intellectual movement focused on understanding, among other things, the dynamic of progress.

The authors begin to repeatedly sound as if they know more than people who’ve been working on these questions their whole professional lives. They write that “while science generates much of our prosperity, scientists and researchers themselves do not sufficiently obsess over how it should be organized.” Maybe I fail to understand what “sufficiently” is in this context, but I’ve never heard of a scientist who isn’t obsessed with improving the field of science. Cowen and Collison (and I regret this analogy, but it’s unavoidable) begin to sound like Donald Trump, who claims that the only reason there’s not peace in the Middle East (or whatever) is because he hasn’t turned his hand to it — once the smartest man in the room turns his towering intellect towards a previously intractable problem, all the conflict melts away. While these two writers may have never given a thought to the funding structure of scientific research before recently, do they really assume that no one else has? “Despite the importance of the issues, critical evaluation of how science is practiced and funded is in short supply, for perhaps unsurprising reasons,” they write, seemingly oblivious to the voluminous research devoted to evaluating how science is practiced and funded.

Again, if I’m being uncharitable, it’s in part because the language here seems at times vague; perhaps with a clearer definition of Progress Studies, and a more articulate critique that takes a fuller view of the current state of academia, these questions would resolve themselves. But because we don’t have a sense of how much Cowen and Collison know about the current state of research in the sciences or education, it’s hard to take seriously their criticism when it reads like ignorance.

Whatever is being done, it seems, is “insufficient.” But sufficiency is never defined here. The writers use terms like “understudied,” and “underfunded,” without defining the parameters of what an acceptable amount of study or funding would look like. In part, it’s because we don’t — even by the article’s end — have a clear definition of what the goal is. If the goal of Progress Studies is the elimination of all disease, or an end to climate change, or the increase of leisure travel, then yes, we are underfunding these problems. But if the goal of Progress Studies is to foster communities that will eventually produce the solutions to these problems, how will we know what kind of resources are necessary? Is the goal to simply throw money at these problems? If you’re critique of contemporary research is that it’s underfunded, you’ll no doubt win support among researchers who could always use more funding, but if you lack any kind of clear, measurable outcomes, it’s hard to take you seriously.

So, most charitably, one could say that this essay is a promising start — if the authors are able to clearly define their goals and the benchmarks used to measure those goals, then there’s nothing wrong with them trying to make the world a better place.

But perhaps the ambiguity is the point. Ambitious but purposely vague ideas are the provenance of TED talks, seed funding, political speeches and con artists: they want to hook you, seduce you with big promises and get you on board so you’ll write the check, and the best way to do that is to leave lots of gaps so that you can fill in your own specifics yourself. The style of this article, which leans heavy on disruption, and promises that intractable problems can be resolved if you give the right geniuses enough money, which denigrates or ignores existing research in favoring of funding new, untried solutions that add bureaucracy — all of it is the hallmark of the tech world’s myopia and narcissism.

There is another way to read this purposely vague concept of “progress.” In Bill Readings’ The University in Ruins, he discusses the rise of the term “excellence” within academia, as an all-encompassing goal of the modern university. Despite the fact that all universities aim for and boast of their excellence, the term is itself devoid of content. From the standpoint of the university, excellence in football has the same currency as excellence in Shakespeare criticism as excellence in Keynesian economics. The beauty of excellence is that it’s ever malleable, and it frees up university administrations to reallocate resources without fear of losing prestige: a university known for its excellent History department, for example, may starve off that department if its faculty begin agitating for a union, and put those funds instead towards building an excellent biology department without missing a beat. Or they can push those funds into excellent dining halls and excellent alumni programs. Excellence is an end unto itself.

The same, perhaps, could be said for “Progress Studies.” By being purposefully vague and selling bold visions that depend on disruption and disregard of established research, Progress Studies is precisely the kind of thing meant to attract university administrators. It allows them to be on the cusp of a brand new, ill-defined discipline, establishing an early excellence that they can then advertise. It allows them to leverage the existing institutional power that longstanding departments have into a race to the bottom of a new field. And it allows them to further cultivate higher education into a vehicle for multinational tech corporations, brushing off anything that doesn’t serve tech as insufficiently obsessed with progress. Lastly, because the recommendations are undefined beyond more investment, it’s easy to move resources from existing priorities to this new, exciting field.

Cowen and Collison’s proposal is either unintentionally confused or deliberately obtuse, but there’s little doubt in my mind that it’s going to be part of the future of higher education.

Colin Dickey

Written by

Author of Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places and The Unidentified: Myhtical Monsters, Alien Encounters & Our Obsession with the Unexplained (2020)

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