“Life, health, prosperity, knowledge and happiness are on the rise, not just in the West but worldwide.” Reduction in warfare and violence combined with safer travel of all types continues. This is the substance of Steven Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now: the Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. It also is the focus of a recent interview with Paul Kennedy on CBC radio’s Ideas that I stumbled on this past week.
I knew of the book and its thesis but was daunted by its 500 plus pages, some of its critics, and the already massive pile of books beside my bed. The interview changed everything.
As a student of history with vague memories of the Enlightenment period, the 1700s until the early 1800s, the notions of democracy, freedom and reason seem suddenly refreshing. Enlightenment suggests progress through rational thought. And progress has continued since the various western revolutions. But as Pinker suggests in the interview and his book, some of the progress could be undone by ignoring present reality. As I listened to Pinker’s reasoning I felt myself getting anxious. Reality is ignored every day in classrooms, media, and our homes. The Enlightenment “swims against currents of human nature-tribalism, authoritarianism and demonization”. Media, politicians, and pulpits continue proclaiming that we are on a downward spiral rather than the reality of continuous improvement on almost every measure.
As a parent and educator, why does this matter? Why not leave the philosophical debates to academia. Because amongst other things, these false premises seep into our everyday interactions with children. Today we instil control, fear, and anxiety in children because of our own concerns for their safety. I am not proposing we throw out improvements to safety and revert to no seatbelts or car seats. I think having cell phones accessible at appropriate times for teens and updated information for healthy sexuality classes, that provide developmentally appropriate facts are paramount.
But operating from a place of naivety or fear based on the possibility of bad things happening is increasing anxiety in all of us. Probability needs to replace possibility. What are the chances of a child being kidnapped by a stranger or getting injured on a school bus? I do not diminish the significance of these events when they happen-the Humboldt Broncos bus crash was tragic, and my heart goes out to every family, friend or community member impacted by the deaths and injuries of those young hockey players. But that incident should not prevent anyone including our children from travelling by bus, one of the safest modes of land travel.
The possibility of bad things happening keeps our children home or tethered because many of us think they are safer that way, which is false. Their reality becomes reduced to the cyber world and lacks real experience. Safety develops in real situations which require them to make their own decisions, experience risk and navigate it in a rational way. As adults, we help prepare them for these situations, walk them through, with gradually increasing independence. This is how our children become enlightened.
The media reports what is newsworthy and sadly human progress doesn’t make headlines. Thank you, Steven Pinker, for reassuring us of the safer world our children are growing up in and reminding us that we need to come from the truth for their sake and ours.
To learn more, listen to the CBC Ideas interview with Steven Pinker.