History and Progress

Contributor: Suzanne Riordan. Lesson ID: 13321

Is history marching forward, making progress toward some goal? Or is it going around in circles? Are we heading toward a brighter future or sinking into chaos? You decide!


People and Their Environment, World

learning style
personality style
Lion, Otter
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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Some things are better today than they were in the past. 

For examples, watch this 2019 AsapSCIENCE video, Your Life Now Vs. in the Past:

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History, as you know, is the study of the people, events, and time periods of the past. We try to make sense of it all and put it into perspective, to understand and learn from it.

Progress is a movement toward a goal.

  • How are history and progress related?

Here are some questions to consider:

  • Does history have a goal, and if so, what is it? Are we making progress toward the goal?
  • Is progress the same for all people?
  • Has life gotten better than it was in the past?
  • Have humans gotten better or worse over time?
  • How do we make fair comparisons between life in the past and today?
  • Do advancements in science, technology, and social order make us happier?

What Is the Goal of History?

One of the ways we humans answer this is with religious faith.

For most religions, the ultimate goal is to be with their God in eternal happiness. So - especially for Christians, Jews, and Muslims - life is to be lived according to God's plan. They believe that history is ordered by Him, and that He will bring an end to it at some point. So, as time passes, humanity in general gets closer to that goal.

For those without this religious faith, the goal of history varies.

Some may believe we are making progress toward a more ordered society, where everyone is treated fairly. Some believe that scientific and technological advances will bring us to a state where we can control everything about our lives, which will bring us happiness.

Others believe that the world is getting worse all the time and nothing can stop its decline. And still others believe that there is no order in the universe, and that all events are random with no goal at all.

We'll explore each of these views in more detail below. But first, let's look at how progress is viewed differently by different people.

Good Progress and Bad Progress

At times, progress to some people means great loss to others.

For example, the progress of American settlers westward brought great opportunity for many Americans. Yet, to the Native Americans living there, it meant the loss of their tribal lands and the wiping out of their culture and way of life.

Examine this 1872 painting called American Progress:

American Progress

Image by John Gast, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Notice how the woman - a symbol of America - is bringing light and progress to the darkened West.

  • What else is she bringing with her?
  • Who and what are fleeing away?
  • Would you call this progress or not?

Of course, this kind of progress has occurred all throughout history.

Stronger or larger tribes invaded and took over the lands of weaker or smaller ones. Civilizations were built on the backs of slave workers, and those of the upper class were given more rights than those in the lower classes.

Throughout history, people have treated each other unfairly.

Here's something to think about:

  • Do we treat each other better now than we did in the past?
  • Is every human life valued as it should be, or do we still have some progress to make?

Human Progress

  • Have humans gotten better over time?

We sometimes laugh at the thought of the caveman, with his grunting speech and his dim knowledge of the world.


  • But are we really that much better than he was?

Explore this idea in The Question of Human Progress by Historical Thinking. While you watch, define each of the following perspectives on history, some of which were mentioned above:

  1. theistic
  2. chaos
  3. human decline
  4. human progress
  5. cyclical

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  • Which of the historical perspectives do you think is the most accurate?

Think about this question, and you'll have a chance to answer it later.

Science and Technology

lighting progress

  • What about science and technological advancements?
  • Do they make life better for us?

Let's take a brief glimpse at how technology has changed over the last 100,000 years or so.

As you watch Technology Evolution | 100,000 BC - 2020, from WatchEvolution, take note of how many of these items you use every day. Think about whether these things make life better than it was in the past.

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Theoretically, as technology gets more advanced, life should get easier for us. We should spend less time doing things we don't like, and more time pursuing things that really make us happy.

  • What do you think about our technological evolution?
  • Does it make life better?
  • Does it make people happier?
  • Is it always a good thing, or are there bad aspects to it as well?

Now that you have given some thought to history and progress, let this section be history and progress on to the Got It? section, where you'll review what you've learned and share your opinion!

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Elephango's Philosophy

We help prepare learners for a future that cannot yet be defined. They must be ready for change, willing to learn and able to think critically. Elephango is designed to create lifelong learners who are ready for that rapidly changing future.