A superlative point towards making progress

How carefully defined goals are key to making meaningful change.

Dean Young, Columnist

Recently I began reading the works of English writer Gilbert K. Chesterton. It started out of curiosity; I had heard his name and seen his work in bookstores, but I knew nothing about him or his message. During one free afternoon, I walked up to the third floor of Bush library, blew the dust off a faded book jacket, and began investigating what this writer had to say.

It turns out he said quite a bit–authoring 100 books, 5 plays, and over 4,000 newspaper essays, in addition to other works. As might be expected from such a prolific output, he covered a diversity of topics: everything from Kipling’s poetry to his essay “Cheese” (wherein he extols cheese’s superb poetic capabilities, among other virtues). While I do not agree with all of Chesterton’s views, one idea in particular that I read that afternoon caught my mind and held my attention; this idea was on the topic of change.

Chesterton recognized that progress must have a recognized end goal in order to determine it’s direction. To say merely that we are “for progress” is not adequate, as we must also know what type of progress we are for; and to know this, we must know where we are aiming. In other words, our principles must guide our progress. Too often, we recognize the need for progress, but have not determined the details for the best possible end; or as Chesterton put it eloquently, “As enunciated today, ‘progress’ is simply a comparative of which we have not settled the superlative.”

The point is well made. We are far better off in our goal for progress if we take the time to determine the best direction, to search through its objective and examine its nuance. The precision and clarity to be gained from this should alone warrant its undertaking. There are some (such as I) who disagree with Chesterton on the type of desired progress, but this does not negate his point; in fact, it makes the point. In order to have this disagreement, we must recognize the type of progress we wish to underwrite. By better understanding the desired achievement of our change, we will be better prepared to make it happen.

I recently had the opportunity to listen to President Miller address some Hamline students; one of the points she emphasized was the vital need to effect change in the community now, even as we are students. I think her point makes the same case. The first step to enacting the type of progress for which Hamline is known begins with carefully considering the object of our desired reform. The better we know our end goals, the better we can advocate, defend and campaign for our principles, and carry those principles with us into the surrounding community. To simply settle for any wind of change will not always prove productive, and may at times be counterproductive (think of times where simple change has led to one step forward and two steps back). Regress is known to masquerade as progress. When asked if we are “for progress,” after an enthusiastic “Yes!” we might do well to ask in response, “To what end?”

The call for progress is no longer necessary; Hamline has a proud heritage of recognizing the need for productive change. It is now up to us, as young scholars and engaged community members, to determine what that productive change entails. It is within our capacity – and up to our responsibility – to determine the superlative of progress. Given the nature of change, it may be difficult (or even impossible) to know the precise outcomes of anything we affect; yet we must nonetheless know our direction and aim. Chesterton may have been on to something. Let’s find that superlative.


Note to editor: During my reading of Chesterton I came across some words, phrases and ideas that were indicative of the times but would not be considered appropriate today (and which I would certainly not support or use). Perhaps I should have a footnote stating that I do not endorse all of Chesterton’s views?