A Focus on Problems and Solutions, Not Personalities

Jason Crawford

The content of Progress Studies for Young Scholars is mostly the history of technology. However, our approach to the subject is different than the one often taken by popular histories of technology. Many popular treatments focus on personalities, such as the famous “war” between Edison and Tesla, or on the drama of two inventors filing patents for the telephone on the same day.

Our approach is deliberate. We focus primarily on problems and solutions. That is, for each technological development, we situate it in historical context: What problem did it solve? And then, what was the solution, at least in outline? More important than any conflict between Edison and Tesla are the physics and economics of direct current and alternating current, and the reasons why our power grid uses AC and not DC—which are engineering reasons, rather than any accident of fate or of personalities.

This approach makes the concept of “progress” real and illustrates it. Progress is the steady accumulation of conquered challenges. We once passed most of our evenings in darkness; now we have artificial light. We once spent laborious hours doing laundry by hand; now we have washing machines. We once lost half our children to disease before the age of five; now we have antibiotics, vaccines, and water treatment plants. This gives the history meaning and relevance—the light bulb isn’t just a thing that happened in 1879, it’s a gift—a solution, a value—that has been handed down from our ancestors and that we still enjoy today. History taught this way illuminates the modern world. This approach also guides our selection of topics. The stories we teach are not the top of the stack rank of “most entertaining” (though they are indeed fascinating). They are rather the important solutions that had the most impact on our biggest problems: manufacturing, agriculture, transportation, energy, communications, medicine. The topics are chosen to include case studies in all of those areas, so that students can see at a high level how technology and industry have affected every aspect of our lives.

And there’s really no tradeoff here. Teaching the history of technology this way isn’t just more informative, it’s naturally more motivating, because it is, ultimately, more relevant to students’ lives. And for the same reason, it is more likely to stick with them, to come up again as relevant context for future learning, to become a part of how they see the world, and to affect their outlook for life.

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