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Alexander M Zoltai

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Progress Can Kill

Alexander M Zoltai

America (The United States of, that is) claims to be a land that offers unlimited progress to its inhabitants. If a person is willing and able to accept and act on the underlying requirements for this late-twentieth-century brand of progress, they can have so much of it it will kill them-in spirit if not bodily.

In amongst the tidal waves of information about what's seriously wrong in the world, daily disgorged from American media, there lie the news-bytes of promised progress, the advertisements for what will make us ready to receive it (or actually, incredibly, bring it to our doors!), and the infomercials and talk shows (only the "better" ones, of course) that show us outlines for acquiring bits and pieces of the pie of progress.

A country that imprints "In God we trust" on its money is crippled in its mad dash for progress because the development this progress offers circles around the money and not the statement printed on it.

Why did Rome fall and why have cultural critics likened America to Rome? My answer would be that they both developed a spiritual sickness. Rome had the Greek ideals of mind and spirit to build on but betrayed those tools of progress to a love of material expansion and satisfaction.

Carts and horses spring to mind and rules about what's first… Assuredly, the horse of spirit will carry the cart of material prosperity if it's fed and cared for. But, poor old horse has been relegated to hanging its head and struggling to push the cart of materialism up the rocky road of progress.

So, can't the minds of Americans see this reversal of priorities and "fix it?" I would imagine so, if American minds had the proper care and feeding…

Let me share a few representative comments on America's educational system.

Theodore Sizer on the sociology of education:

School is to be like a job: you start in the morning and end in the afternoon, five days a week…. School is conceived of as the children's workplace, and it takes young people off parent's hands and out of the labor market during prime-time work hours. Not surprisingly, many students see going to school as little more than a dogged necessity. They perceive the day-to-day routine, a Minnesota study reports, as one of "boredom and lethargy." [1]

Even the young horses must be taught to hang their heads and push.

Mike Rose on rewards and payoffs:

There's been a good deal of research and speculation suggesting that the acknowledgement of school performance with extrinsic rewards-smiling faces, stars, numbers, grades-diminishes the intrinsic satisfaction children experience by engaging in reading or writing or problem solving…. It's certainly true that we've created an educational system that encourages our best and brightest to become cynical grade collectors and, in general, have developed an obsession with evaluation and assessment. [2]

Saddled with grade-mongering, the brightest become advocates of the new-Rome. Tortured by failure to "measure up", the less competent turn into couch potatoes.

Malcom X on his self-education:

I have often reflected upon the new vistas that reading opened to me. I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life. As I see it today, the ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive. I certainly wasn't seeking any degree, the way a college confers a status symbol upon its students. [3]

I've heard that "status" is just a way of saying "broke" but at a higher level. And, doesn't it seem reasonable that putting "In God we trust" on the money then making the money god could be viewed as a spiritual death sentence? What can anyone expect from the American dream of progress if the final reward is a cart full of stuff on top of a hill and lying quite near a dead horse?

This is all very strange in a land known for personal and spiritual freedom; and, stranger still when the religions all reveal that trusting in God for aid in the enterprise of living carries a complimentary contractual necessity for spiritual behavior. Not church attendance or regular contributions or various study groups, if these are done to assure social position, to attain some "status." Rather, spiritual behavior that, in practical terms, is expressed through, "…love, compassion, forbearance, trustworthiness, courage, humility, co-operation and willingness to sacrifice for the common good-qualities of an enlightened citizenry, able to construct a unified world civilization. [4]

Today, proponents of "American Progress" are being forced to realize that the cart and its goods may very well come from other countries and the American horse must learn, quickly, to work in a team-harness.

In a statement entitled Social Progress presented in Vienna, Austria, September 1987 to the United Nations Interregional Consultation on Development, Social Welfare Policies and Programmes, the Bahá'í International Community said:

Humankind is one interdependent whole. Any approach to social problems must recognize the global nature of such problems. Examples of this interrelatedness abound: the flow of refugees and of international migrants seeking better jobs and living standards; the impact of international economic events on local and national economies; the effect of trans-national media and communications networks on raising the awareness and expectations of peoples. The list could go on. It is clear, however, that a common framework is needed. And any such framework should not only recognize the world's interrelatedness, it should encourage and uphold it. To do otherwise is to ignore reality. "It is not for him to pride himself who loveth his own country, but for him who loveth the whole world." [Bahá'í Writings] [5]

I was born an American and I hope to die a World Citizen. I'm tired of flogging the horse, making the dispirited animal inch its way up a hill of material progress, pushing a cart that brazenly displays a bumper sticker saying, "Made in America."

Lately, I've been having dreams of unhitching the horse, climbing on its back, and riding off into a global sunrise of higher promise…


[1] Sizer, Theodore, What High School Is, p. 26, Rereading America: Cultural Contexts for Critical Thinking and Writing, Editors - Colombo, Gary; Cullen, Robert and Lisle, Bonnie (Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, Third Edition, 1995)

[2] Rose, Mike, "I Just Wanna Be Average", p. 41, Rereading America: Cultural Contexts for Critical Thinking and Writing, Editors - Colombo, Gary; Cullen, Robert and Lisle, Bonnie (Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, Third Edition, 1995)

[3] X, Malcolm, Learning to Read, p. 85, Rereading America: Cultural Contexts for Critical Thinking and Writing, Editors - Colombo, Gary; Cullen, Robert and Lisle, Bonnie (Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, Third Edition, 1995)

[4] (accessed 30 November 1998)

[5] (accessed 30 November 1998)
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Alexander M Zoltai, Far Shore Publications, 1998-1999