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To paraphrase the late John Lennon, “So this is Easter, and what have you done?”

Ends of Terms can often be associated with assessments of all sorts of kinds. Assessing what we value and valuing what we assess and measuring progress and progressively measuring what we assess and valuing progress &c. are often seen as what we all should be up to these days, wherever we happen to find ourselves.

I wonder if dear old John Lennon wondered about the progress he was making. But what is meant by the word ‘progress’?  With my decidedly western sensibilities, let’s have a bit of a look.

Plato, when he wasn’t escaping caves, tended toward Hesiod’s view, that mankind’s state had gradually degenerated from an earlier golden age. For Plato, human progress such as it was, was relative and precarious. Only a society founded on divine principles and governed by divinely informed philosophers could save mankind from its destructive irrationality; and the best life was one directed toward the world of the eternal Ideas. The changeless spiritual realm preceded and would forever be superior to whatever human beings tried to accomplish in the temporal world.

Fast forwarding to the Romantics. Their view was that any human progress was not to be rooted in the empirical and technical knowledge of the scientific mind.  They mined deeper realities, hidden to common sense and mechanical experiment. In the so-called Enlightenment view, scientific vision, modern civilisation and its values stood unequivocally above all its predecessors, while Romanticism, in contrast, maintained a profound ambivalence toward modernity in its many expressions. As time passed, ambivalence turned into antagonism as Romantics radically questioned the West’s belief in its own progress, in its civilisation’s innate superiority, and most of all in the inevitable destination of the fulfilment of the human race being guaranteed by sticking to the road of rationalism.

Next along the conveyor belt of history comes what has been called ‘the triumph of secularism’ where “planning” replaced “hoping” as human reason and technology demonstrated their miraculous efficacy. Confidence in human progress, very similar, to my mind, to a kind of biblical faith in humanity’s spiritual evolution and future consummation, was so central to the modern world view that it inevitably perhaps increased with the decline of Christianity. Expectations of mankind’s coming fulfilment found vivid expression as the modern mind reached its most determinedly secular stages.  Think of Marx, for example. Indeed, the ultimate statement of belief in evolutionary human deification was found in Christianity’s most famous god killer, Nietzsche, whose Superman would be born out of the death of God and the overcoming of the old limited man. The conviction therefore became that we were steadily and inevitably approaching entrance to a better world. And what was chugging us inexorably along this road was science and reason, not religion and belief.  Our will, not God’s, was to be the source of progress.

And thus with almost comic predictability, out of modernism is born the helter skelter, petard hoisting world of postmodernism.  The road now becomes a spaghetti junction of roads inexorably leading nowhere or back to a start which is not a start at all.  This is where I fear many of us are currently.  Here reality itself is criticised as a futile exercise in linguistic game playing. Language is nothing more than a sustained but doomed effort to move beyond elaborate fictions of its own creation. Any idea of progress is itself condemned as inherently alienating and oppressively hierarchical.  Nothing more than an intellectual imperious procedure that has produced an existential and cultural impoverishment, which has led to the technocratic domination of nature and the social-political domination of others. The Western mind’s overriding compulsion to impose some form of reason, whether theological, scientific, or economic on every aspect of life, is accused of being not only self-deceptive but destructive.

Postmodernism then rejects the entire Western intellectual “canon” as long defined and privileged by a more or less exclusively male, white, European elite. Received truths concerning “man,” “reason,” “civilisation,” and “progress” &c. are all thrown out with the bathwater as being intellectually and morally bankrupt. Under the cloak of Western values, too many sins have been committed. Disenchanted eyes are now cast onto the West’s long history of ruthless expansionism and exploitation and its systematic thriving at the expense of others.

The postmodern view of course does not exist, because to do so, it would have to undo itself.  And yet, the postmodern mind is not so very different to those that went before it.  The modern mind’s conviction of superiority and the possibility of progress is derived from its awareness of it possessing more knowledge than its predecessors.  The postmodern mind’s sense of superiority is derived from its awareness of how little knowledge can be claimed by any mind, including its own.

So where does that leave us with regard to the question of assessments and the measurement of progress?  Well, I don’t know about you but I’ve often found that when we reach for apparently simple answers to questions about the big stuff,  almost any available answer is going to be not just unhelpful but possibly destructive.  Is progress possible?  Yes and no. But if it is to be measured at all, beware and tread softly.

Perhaps,  I should here quote from my esteemed colleague, Ms Stoutt, “The only real thing that anybody can ask of you is that you do your best.  And if you do your best then you will have done everything you can do.”  Good teachers know what a student’s best looks like and it probably doesn’t look like a number.

To paraphrase dear John Lennon once more “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will not be as one, two or three points off the mean percentile.”  Or something like that.

So what might the ultimate progress look like?  Well that question brings us to ideas of The Resurrection, which is where I came in.

Until next time, Happy reading/ making all sorts of progress!