Why Focus on History? 

Jason Crawford

When the concept of “progress studies” was introduced by Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen in The Atlantic, it was defined as a dedicated field of study for “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.” They wrote that the field “would consider the problem as broadly as possible. It 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.” 

Progress studies thus overlaps with history, economics, economic history, the history and philosophy of science, and the science of organization and management, among other fields. However, Progress Studies for Young Scholars is primarily focused on the history of technology. Why? 

The history of technology is the indispensable foundation for progress studies. Before we can answer, “how does progress happen?” and “why has progress happened when and where it did?”, we must know the basic answer to: “what progress has happened?” 

It is crucial, for instance, to understand the improvements in global living standards that have occurred over the last 200 years, which we cover in the first few days of class. It is also crucial to learn some of the major discoveries and inventions that caused those improvements. For instance, we cover how the automation of textile manufacturing made clothes cheaper, and helped textile workers earn higher wages. We study how the discovery of the Haber-Bosch process created enough fertilizer to feed the world population. We look at how the invention of railroads made travel faster, cheaper, and safer. We explore how improvements in water and food sanitation reduced the incidence and mortality of infectious disease. 

It can be tempting to jump immediately to the deepest questions, and to seek sweeping theories to explain the broad arc of human progress over the centuries and millennia. But in the words that Arthur Conan Doyle gave to Sherlock Holmes, “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” Before we theorize about economics, politics, and policy, we need the data—both quantitative and qualitative—about how progress has happened in the past. This is especially true for an area that is prone to triggering our political and ideological biases. 

Studying the history of the major innovations that created the modern world gives us the base of facts on which to discuss and evaluate theories. And the stories are fascinating in their own right. They are stories of trial and error, hopes and dreams, setbacks and resilience, struggle and triumph. More than just the data for economic principles, they also teach us how breakthroughs are made, and about the people who made them. 

Further, in answering the question of “what progress has happened?”, students learn to understand the world around them as the result of progress. From the clothes we wear, to the roads we drive on, to the omnipresent and diverse cheap, effective materials that compose the stuff of life, to the systems and processes of commerce and culture such as financial and communications infrastructureone learns to appreciate that these things came from somewhere. They were the result of humans in the past facing and solving certain problems, the solutions for which have accumulated and endured. Too many people take the world around us for granted. Looking out into the world and seeing progress is itself an achievement, and both appreciation and more critical reflection on human artifacts and accomplishments flow from an understanding of their history. 

Through Progress Studies for Young Scholars, students learn about the basis for industrial civilization and gain the background needed to truly understand economics—more so than most adults today! And, we hope, they will be inspired by the stories of researchers, inventors and entrepreneurs to go out and blaze new trails of their own. 

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