How much of a meliorist are you?

Recently I was sent a link to an article titled Cheer up, it’s not all doom and gloom published by the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s The Drum.

This article mentioned a book by Steven Pinker called Better Angels of Our Nature which had been recommended to me by Geoff Le Pard in a comment on my post about childhood illness. The premise of this book is that humanity, over the ages, has become less violent. After to listening to Pinker’s history of violence, I’m pleased that I live these relatively peaceful times.

 

The article also introduced me to a new term ‘meliorism’ which means having a belief that the world can be improved by the actions of humans. While the term may have been unfamiliar to me, the attitude is not and I attest that I am a meliorist.

I have a very strong belief in the power of education to improve the world. Education empowers individuals, and educated individuals empower societies to build improved futures. It becomes very difficult to sustain negative practices in the face of overwhelming evidence and information.

What better place is there for education to begin than in the home?

In a recent post I referred to a new book by Michael Rosen called Good Ideas: How to Be Your Child’s (And Your Own) Best Teacher. At the time I had not read the book but now I can say, with great delight, that I have listened to most of it. With messages such as those contained in Michael’s book, it is easy to be a meliorist.

I think Rosen’s book should be available to, perhaps compulsory reading for, every parent; I consider its message to be that important. In fact, I am off to the shops today to purchase copies to give to parents of young children I know.  It will become part of my gift to new parents that also includes Reading Magic by Mem Fox and a selection of picture books. I have previously blogged about that here and here.

The “Good Ideas” contained in Rosen’s book, if implemented, will keep alive the natural curiosity of one’s children and oneself. They will encourage the development of thought, creativity and responsiveness.

In the next few weeks I will post a more detailed review of the book and some of Michael’s ideas for stimulating curiosity, whoever and wherever you are.

What about you? Are you a meliorist?

I welcome your feedback. Please share your thoughts about any aspect of this post.

Thank you

44 thoughts on “How much of a meliorist are you?

  1. roweeee

    I am definitely a meliorist and I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to look up what this actually means after seeing the word mentioned in so many of your posts. Need to work on my curiousity and answering questions. For those who don’t know me, I have two kids who have just turned 12 and 10. While I agree that early childhood education is important, I would stress the need for life-long education and the need to keep massaging those brain cells and that education goes beyond formal schooling into something more organic.
    What I’ve really noticed is the importance of not only asking questions but also searching for the answers, which is so much easier now thanks to the Internet. I’m actually starting to think that asking questions is a better sign of intelligence than showing off or regurgitating what we know. My daughter has always asked me loads of complex questions and all I can say is thank goodness for Google. I don’t need to be a know-it-all!
    xx Rowena

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for finding, reading and commenting on this post, Rowena. I picked you as a fellow meliorist straight off! 🙂
      You have made some good points in your comment – about the need for education to be life-long, beyond formal schooling, and something more organic. I heartily agree.
      I also applaud your realisation that asking questions is a surer sign of intelligence than regurgitation of a list of facts. Asking, why is it so, does it have to be, how can we change/improve it? are all great questions to ask. Google is great for finding the answers to questions wanting facts, but some of the most important questions can only be found through other explorations.
      What a relief it is when you realise that you don’t need to know everything. I often us Manuel’s catchphrase from Fawlty Towers, “I know nothing!”
      Thanks for sharing. 🙂

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      1. roweeee

        Thanks, Norah. One of the things my husband has brought to my attention, is that an expert in a field appreciates how little they really` know and the gaps in their knowledge but also perhaps where to go to find it whereas the novice thinks they know it all, blissfully ignorant of what they don’t know they don’t know.
        I agree with you about feeling I know nothing but I don’t like it when the kids become aware of that fact. I’m thinking I need to show them my CV, although my daughter defended me yesterday. That was a moment for celebration!

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        1. Norah Post author

          I agree with Hub. It’s very true. I’m sure your children think more highly of you than you give them credit for. I’m sure they sing your praises to friends when you are out of earshot! 🙂

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  6. Caroline

    Please dont eat me!
    Not much to add except to say I am a meliorist. How can someone in education stay there if they are not. The kids improve their skills and understanding, the world turns, and sometimes (like this summer) seems on the way to hell in the proverbial handcart. But there are SO MANY people working to improve the world. Educators as special people in this.
    Thanks for starting this off!

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  7. lorilschafer

    I definitely agree that human actions can make the world a better place. (Of course, certain of them have the opposite effect, but that’s a different subject.) Look at the current anti-bullying campaign, for example. Nobody used to think that childhood bullying was avoidable, but it turns out that, to some extent, it is – as long as people get all riled up about it. In addition, I think social media is a terrific catalyst for “melioritic” movements, not only because it helps individuals to spread the word about causes that are important to them, but also because it encourages them believe that they really can make a difference. They can.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you for your melioritic comment, Lori. The anti-bullying campaign is a great example of positive progress being made. As you say, social media can be a great catalyst for swelling the ranks of meliorists. Meliorists everywhere unite! 🙂

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  8. Lisa Reiter

    Great post and great comments Norah. Thank you for the welcome new word for something I do believe in. For to not, is to give up on the human race and I’d rather be proved wrong after a hard battle.. 😀 (copies post before posting to avoid possible ‘grrrr’ situation)

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  9. Cultivating Questioners

    I am definitely a meliorist! I love, love, love that new word, thanks for introducing me to it.
    I will also have to check out the Rosen book — I have a parent resource page on my classroom website, it looks like it might be a nice volume to include there!

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  10. Bec

    Great post, Nor, thanks. I must say Anne summarised my thoughts very nicely! Despite being in the least violent times, we are allowing greed and corruption to continue to keep our very-capable-of-good-and-innovation species clogging the climate, perpetuating warfare and intolerance, institutionalising new and profound injustices (like allowing Coca Cola to present people in South America from accessing waterways because they wish to profit from it; allowing patents on human genes, meaning advances in medical treatments may be kept within a barrier of corporate profits), deforesting the environment and sending species extinct, filling the oceans with plastic, imprisoning (or attempting to) people who reveal the methodological slaughter of innocents by their governments, allowing the normalisation of employment by some of our most creative minds in marketing – an industry designed to encourage consumerism…. It could go on and on. Yes – I agree – our species is remarkable in what we are able to achieve. But our species, too, seems determined to trade off all else in favour of pursuing greed and status, which inherently are at the expense of other life. A good example of this, I feel, is the recently published work by Piketty which has demonstrated that in our current economic system, capital grows more quickly than income. Even though capitalism has managed to liberate many out of servitude and poverty, there is an increasing imbalance between the ability of those who ‘already have’ to get more, and those who ‘current have little or none’ to get any. “I want to believe” – to quote the X-Files – that we are capable of good. But I simply fail to see the evidence that our species is on a path toward the great future which certainly is possible. Perhaps physical violence has decreased, but when will we start considering the cumulative violence against the environment, and the subtle violence of ideas which privilege few at the expense of many, as markers of our species and society?

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    1. Norah Post author

      Hi Bec,
      Thanks so much for your lengthy and ponderous comment, though you seem to have disagreed with what I have said. I’m gathering you don’t consider yourself a meliorist. It’s interesting, isn’t it? I see all those things that you see too, but I still have hope for the future. I think that if we don’t have hope then there is not much sense in going on, and the will to do anything about improving the situation can wither and die. I like the quote by George Bernard Shaw: “Some men see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not” The ‘why’ to me portrays a sense of hopelessness and the ‘why not’ a sense of hope; a call to action. As Geoff and I commented, we needed to be united in our quest to improve the world. For me, my small contribution is by trying to improve the education of children. It has been my lifelong quest and passion (as you know!).
      I have just read a post on the Imagineer7’s Weblog called ‘This is good’. http://imagineer7.wordpress.com/2014/10/23/this-is-good/ I think you will enjoy it. Parts of it remind me of you, especially where he says that the ‘average person actively seeks only the information that confirms their beliefs and theories about themselves and the world’. I’m sure I have heard you say that many times. I challenge you to see how many times during the day you can find things about which you can say, ‘This is good’. I’ll try it too! 🙂

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      1. Bec

        Hi Nor, thanks as always for your thoughts. I enjoy that we are sometimes in disagreement, and in this way are able to learn from each other, about each other, and about ourselves. I thoroughly enjoyed the post you had linked – it had many connections to the literature I read for my research! I really liked this:

        Think of roses and thorns. You can complain because roses have thorns, or you can rejoice because thorns have roses. You can choose to interpret experiences any way you wish. It is not the experience that determines who you are; it is your interpretation of the experience. You do not see things as they are; you see them as you are.

        …demonstrating how powerful perspective can be. I try to be self-reflective and work out which lenses I have on. When I was tutoring for the Masters course, I had a patriarchal lens on – I viewed the world as the world viewed me as illegitimate and unqualified by virtue of being a young female teaching people older than me. Of course, this is how I expected to see the world, so I spent time trying to untrain myself from this perspective and to change my lens to a different tint which would allow me to be the best tutor for the context I was in.

        In terms of being a meliorist, or not, perhaps I am an oscillating-meliorist. I certainly believe in the capacity and potential for our species to do good, though I question whether we are on the path to realising that great possible future given the current way (I perceive) our society has manifested norms of consumerism, competitive individualism, and economic rationalism. As Clive Hamilton summarised his feelings about climate change (after publishing Requiem for a Species) – given the science tells us we have already committed to perhaps 2 degrees of warming – the right thing to do is to attempt to do the right thing even when it may come to naught. Although I loathe analogies which are based on violence or battle, it is the idea that it is best to die with sword in hand, rather than give up and accept a fate we don’t want. I feel that there are scourges on out society which serve as barriers to reaching a positive future. And they are of our doing. And to get to the great future, which the meliorists rightly point out is a possibility, then we need to rid our society of those damaging practices and institutions.

        To refer to Clive Hamilton again, though in relation to another of his books (The Freedom Paradox), those damaging processes appeal to our short term desires, rather than to our long term preferences. I am being very bereft in my description, but here is an overview (and I feel that I may have mentioned this on your blog in the comments in the past, too!): http://clivehamilton.com/the-worldview-informing-the-work-of-the-productivitycommission-a-critique/. The changes we need are paradigm shifts in the norms of society. Perhaps not the values – most folks have good at heart (there’s a hat tip to the meliorists), but’s it’s challenging to be told that in striving to be a good person and conforming to social norms, the actions taken have caused negative, unforseen consequences for climate change, global population, inequality, and so on. So where is the hope that might turn me into a non-oscillatory-meliorist? Well, folks like you, Nor, who use your good heart and thoughtful commitment to encourage children to flourish. But what can education do when encouraging values such as care for the environment, recognition of the genocidal history of post-1788 Australia, and raising awareness of global economic injustices, is seen as being part of the “culture wars” in education? Now I am oscillating away from hope, and back toward despair. Well, at least ‘this is good’ – perhaps the future will reveal how for me as it did in the story to which you linked.

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        1. Norah Post author

          Thank you again Bec for continuing the conversation with this in-depth discussion. I am surprised that what I considered a rather innocuous post would spark such detail and depth of thinking. It reminds me a little of the bookmark I made for World Teacher’s Day last year, which essentially said that teachers can never predict the effect of their words and actions. That you have taken the content of this post and used it to extend the depth of your, and my, thinking is rewarding and gives me great pleasure.
          Thank you for linking to the Clive Hamilton article. We have indeed discussed his works and ideas previously. I like the passage you picked out from the Imagineer7″s Weblog about roses and thorns, and agree with your thoughts about perspective. I will demonstrate that now by linking to a quote that appealed to me most in Hamilton’s article: I am free only if I have the self-control, the will and the intellectual capacity to select my preferences.

          I am free only if I have the self-control, the will and the intellectual capacity to select my preferences.

          I am also going to make an observation about the opinion you expressed of yourself as tutor of the Masters course. I would like to suggest that it wasn’t the world that viewed you as ‘illegitimate and unqualified’. Rather you were projecting your expectation of being considered so upon ‘the world’. I know for a fact that those students appreciated your support and expertise, many commenting that you were the ‘best’ tutor they had encountered.
          There is much to discuss in Clive Hamilton’s article but I don’t think here is the place. However I will say that education is what is required for people to realise how their first-order preferences are being manipulated and to fully understand the long-term effects of choosing first- over second-order preferences. I often wonder why, for example, the benefits of supporting local producers and manufacturers (as you do) are not made more of in the media. The long-term benefit is there for all of us, but the public is constantly bombarded with suggestions of how to save a few immediate cents. Education is the key.
          I also think that part of being a meliorist is accepting one’s circle of influence and doing what is possible within that, while continuing to look for ways to constantly expand that circle. 🙂

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          1. Bec

            Thanks Nor for the reply and sorry for co-opting this seemingly innocuous post! Well, as a good meliorist you do manage to make me feel more optimistic about the future. You’re right – education is the tool that can help people to be aware of their own preferences, and the ways that these preferences may be manipulated by others. Though I mention the so-called culture wars in education, something you regularly discuss is the importance of creative and critical thinking – surely this is what we need, regardless of the content of the curricula. Thanks for oscillating me back to the positive thoughts. You’re right about the tutoring, too – though I did mean to say that I see the world as if the world sees me as a young female, not that I think the world sees me that way – I communicated that very poorly above. Thanks for so effortlessly encouraging all this opportunity for thinking – like you say, who knows where the teacher’s words will lead.

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            1. Annecdotist

              Oh,no, My comment got eaten too!
              Well, I have to say I’m astonished how much this debate has moved on since I last popped over and for me, you, Bec, win the debate with your erudite comments worthy of two or three posts in themselves.
              But, I am curious about how quickly we’ve got into taking sides and I wonder why the meliorists seem to be threatened by the unmeliorists? Surely each person is entitled to their own view of the world based on their own experience of it and shouldn’t we all, regardless of our orientation, pool our efforts to try to make things better in whatever way works for us. While it’s true that hope and despair are polar opposites there’s quite a wide middle ground and we can even step outside both of them and focus not on emotion but on doing what’s right.

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              1. Norah Post author

                What is it about this post that it keeps eating comments! Should I be eating my words!
                Thanks for popping back, Anne, and adding further to the discussion. I hadn’t realised that we were taking sides or feeling either threatened or threatening – just exchanging opinions and seeking understanding. I agree with you that people are free to form and hold their own opinions, but it is also good sometimes to step outside one’s perspectives and consider alternatives. You rightly say that we must all try to make things better in the way that works for us! I can see no joy in dystopian futures that are often portrayed and would rather, however hopeless it may be considered by some, do what I can towards building a more positive future.

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                1. Annecdotist

                  Apologies, Norah, my reference to taking sides was partly because I was surprised at myself saying Bec has WON the debate, which I think was in response to Geoff apparently taking issue with my position, so I’ll respond to him there.

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                  1. Norah Post author

                    No apology necessary, Anne. I welcome and appreciate your comments. If we only ever said, “I agree,” without opportunities for interrogation and discussion our ideas would stagnate. It is only by having open discussion that we are truly able to clarify, and perhaps justify, what we really think. I love hearing differing views. It is only when you share what you really think that I can get to know you. So please don’t apologise or hold back. 🙂

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                    1. Annecdotist

                      Apologies again! I didn’t feel you were at all but referencing my possible overreaction to Geoff’s reference to “the Annes of this world” needing a change of outlook.

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  11. TanGental

    Grr! Just wrote a brilliant comment and it’s been eaten! In essence:
    1. I am a super-meliorist
    2. We should persuade the Annes of this world to cheer up: the proposition ‘we can improve’ and ‘we can mess are’ are not balanced. The evidence is the former prevails
    3. Education is at the root, as is good science.
    4. The sub replacement fertility rate means the world population will start to shrink; we will cherish children, we will cherish women, we will become more equal because we have to.
    5. The older the population the calmer, the less warrior like.
    6. We have every reason to look forward it optimism. Of course the path will be rocky and there will be set backs but I for one say BRING IT ON

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    1. Norah Post author

      Double Grrr!! I just wrote a reply and it was eaten. The ether is very hungry today! I was just about to copy it to avoid losing it when it totally disappeared! (I was doing it in the drop-down comment box that appears on other, rather than my own, WordPress sites.)
      Nevermind. You were determined to post your comment, so I can be just as determined to post a reply! 🙂
      Thank you for making the effort to rewrite your comment. It is very frustrating when time has been spent thinking and composing only to have one’s brilliant thoughts disappear into the ether. Perhaps your determination to comment can be attributed to your meliorism.
      I’m pleased you are a super-meliorist! Yay! Meliorists of the world must unite and create that critical mass to overtake the naysayers! I love the optimism of your comment and agree wholeheartedly with your call to action – BRING IT ON indeed! (Do you have a song or a poem in there?)

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      1. TanGental

        What comes to mind is a line in Dead a from The Waist Down by Catatonia ‘Make Hay not War’. It’s a great song about fighting greed and being yourself and I could listen to Cerys Matthews even singing a shopping list. Together Carpe Diem!

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    2. Annecdotist

      Sorry, Geoff, “cheer up, it might never happen” doesn’t really work when it already has! You’ll have to find another strategy if you want to persuade me to change my outlook 😉

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      1. TanGental

        Therein lies the nub problem, Anne! It’s not about the past tense, but the future!! But I accept this is just a question of attitude and I learnt a long time ago from arguing with my father – if you bang your head against a brick wall, stop because you don’t hurt the wall. 😉

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        1. Annecdotist

          I originally responded to Norah’s question in the spirit I think it was intended, ie. to share our similarities and differences in a light-hearted way. I didn’t think I would need to defend my position but I’m prepared to do so (in a limited way).
          Why does past experience matter? Because once we’ve banged our heads against the brick wall a couple of times we learn it’s futile to repeat the action. The wise give up hope that the next time they try this strategy it will produce the result they want.
          Why am I not entirely confident that “we can improve” is more powerful than “we can mess”? There are so many areas in which, as a species, we fail to learn from experience. A prime example is global warming. We know what we need to do to slow this down yet the most we can manage is to require supermarkets to charge for plastic bags when what’s needed is something in the magnitude of banning supermarkets altogether – and more. Some might choose to continue our resource-guzzling lifestyles in the hope that scientists will come up with a different answer to the problem. Although I think this is unlikely to happen, I hope so too.
          Am I cheerless? I accept that I might be perceived in that way by people who don’t like to look on the dark side. But for me, being mindful of both positives and negatives, light and dark, is the route to contentment, although I’ve no desire to impose this worldview on others.
          Can we now get back to debating flash fiction and bad hair days?

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          1. TanGental

            Surely. All I would add is that I don’t see you as exclusively a pesimist any more than you should see me as some glowing faced one eyed optimist. We are both realists I’m sure by our own lights. I happen to a positive outcomes view on things. Maybe you do too albeit more cautiously. I don’t know. You’re certainly not cheerless!! Happy to debate this or stick with flash. And sorry Norah for hijacking your post. Entirely my fault – as Anne rightly points out it was a light hearted response that has become more serous.

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            1. Norah Post author

              Thanks Geoff, and no apology to me required. Although the depth of responses surprised me, I’m not sure that I would consider the post hijacked. The topic is one that obviously resonated with many of us and I feel the discussion was valuable in that it encouraged sharing of thoughts and opinions. I always appreciate your contribution. 🙂

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              1. TanGental

                You are very kind but Anne is right that I sparked a debate that was probably out of place. I do let my ego run away with me sometimes. You are a generous and engaging host Ms Colvin!

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          2. Norah Post author

            Hi Anne, Thanks for continuing to add your thoughts to this post. I really appreciate your commitment to clarification. I love your suggestion of getting back to debating flash fiction and bad hair days, and had a bit of a chuckle at it. Unfortunately I have just written my next post and haven’t quite let it go yet, though you may if you wish. 🙂
            I agree that re-using shopping bags made of natural materials or charging for use of plastic ones is a tiny step, but it is a step in the right direction nonetheless. We need vocal advocates (like you) telling us what we should be doing and why by encouraging us to extend our efforts without chastising us for changes we have not yet made. I am fortunate that I have my own personal environment advisor and sustainability guru in Bec, but I still have a long way to go and many changes to make to my consumerist behaviour. For those without the knowledge (education) it will be an even slower process and sometimes the enormity of changes needed can be overwhelming. Please continue to share your ideas. They help me to think about my thinking. 🙂

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  12. Annecdotist

    Great post, great question.
    It’s interesting, isn’t it, when we are so aware of worldwide violence from the media, to discover we live in the least violent age ever. But, as you know, our perceptions of risk don’t always dovetail so well with reality.
    I’m not sure I am a meliorist (a new word to me too, but connects in my head with Spanish so presumably it has Latin roots). I believe we have the potential to improve the world and that education has a big part to play in this, but we have an equally strong potential to mess it up.
    I see the way forward in investing in very early childhood: if children grow up feeling secure and curious (all the things you write about on your blog) there’s a better chance they’ll be less motivated by greed and better able to do good in the world. But I don’t see it happening on a large enough scale because those who hold the purse strings don’t think it matters.
    Nevertheless, I don’t think we should give up the struggle. I like your optimism and I still think it’s worth trying to do the right thing.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for your comment, Anne.
      I agree with you that we have an equally strong potential to mess ‘it’ up. In fact I said something to that effect in my original draft. However, being a meliorist, I removed it!!
      While I know there is a lot of damage being done in a lot of areas (including schooling) I also know that we (humans) have the potential to do good. I would love to have that potential harnessed and realised. I wish we could do something about those purse strings! I think that without an optimistic outlook we would soon see no sense in trying and, as you say, it is still worth trying to do the right thing. We need to all pull together on this. 🙂

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