The Roots of Progress

Problem-solution history

August 11, 2018

History gets a bad rap. Most people find it boring—as did I, throughout all my school years, until I finally got excited about it in my mid-twenties and began catching up on my education. The problem is the way it is written and taught.

History is often presented as a collection of facts. The facts might be a jumble, or hopefully organized in an understandable sequence. I call this name-and-date history. It’s the boring history that most people associate with the subject and that most people suffer through in school. At its best, a historian can pick out the most interesting or exciting facts, and tell them in an engaging, lively manner. I call this storytime history. The material is somewhat motivated and it’s at least entertaining. But in any case the student doesn’t retain much if anything, and what little they retain is not very useful, because it isn’t connected to anything and doesn’t represent a deep understanding.

The better historians go beyond name-and-date history. They integrate facts into casual sequences to create coherent narratives. I call this cause-and-effect history. At this level the student actually has a chance of achieving real understanding. Even at this level, though, the ideas can quickly become overwhelming. At its best, cause-and-effect history simplifies, condenses and essentializes until it reaches a high level of integration. This is big-picture history, a term coined by Scott Powell (to whom I am indebted for most of the perspective just outlined). With big-picture history the student can not only understand, but retain that understanding in a usable package.

What I am trying to do in this blog is something I’m calling problem-solution history. Since I’m telling the story of human progress, I want to tell not only what happened, not only why it happened, but why we decided to make it happen. To do that, I need to clearly explain the problems humans face and how almost every aspect of the modern world is a solution to one of those problems.

Only in this context can you appreciate, protect, and defend what we have accomplished so far—and be inspired to push progress further, faster. Without this background, it’s easy to hate DDT without realizing that it was a replacement for arsenic, to despise plastic without realizing that it saved the elephants, or to be disgusted by industrial furnaces without realizing that they averted worldwide famine. It’s easy to propose doing away with modern technolgy and reverting to a seemingly halcyon past, without realizing that this means un-solving problems that those who came before us worked so hard to solve.