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SOUDER: Going up or going down?

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Are things in the country getting progressively better or worse?

By Chuck Souder

No doubt you have had the experience of standing outside an elevator and had someone ask you, “Going up?” or conversely, “Going down?” The point of the question, obviously, is to give you an opportunity to get on that particular elevator if it is going the direction in which you wish to go.

It is always important to know which way an elevator is going (and which way you want to go on it), but an even more important question to consider is this: As a society, are we going up or going down?

In other words, are things getting progressively better with only small bumps along the road to further advancement, or are things getting progressively worse with only temporary reprieves?

That things are on an ever-progressing incline is almost assumed, particularly in the U.S. For years, our politicians have claimed that “America’s best days are ahead of her.” (That is, of course, if we elect them and not their good-for-nothing opponents who will send us hurtling either back into the Stone Age or into a dark period of socialism and tyranny – depending on the political bent of the one making the claim.)

Conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh has for years claimed to be “on the cutting edge of societal evolution.” No matter what you think of Rush, it is clear that he means that society is on a steady path toward something better and that he is in the forefront of leading us there.

(That he claims to do it with “half his brain tied behind his back, just to make it fair” infuriates his opponents and humors his allies.)

Yes, the popular consensus is that things are, or at least should be, continually on the up-swing.

But is it true? Is it realistic? Does it make sense with your personal experience in the world?

Are we really headed in the right direction as a culture? How would one even measure such a thing? Is it just a person’s general impression, or can we look at it objectively?

In some arenas, things certainly do seem to be continually progressing. Technology, for example, is advancing at a break-neck pace, with each succeeding gadget making the last one obsolete. The other day I came across an interesting fact that illustrates the point rather vividly: The wingspan of a 747 aircraft is more than 90 feet longer than the Wright brothers’ first flight! Inmany areas, this advance in technology has led to lower prices and more convenience for consumers – think big-screen TVs and smartphones.

Technology has also helped lead to advances in the field of medicine, where things that oncewould have been impossible are now routine, and procedures that used to be life-threatening and involve long hospital stays are now done on an outpatient basis.

But do the advances in technology and medicine necessarily mean that our society as a whole is “evolving” in a positive way? What about other measurements – such as morality, education and social mores? How are we doing economically? Emotionally?

In each of these categories, I believe the evidence points in the opposite direction.

Perhaps the easiest to track empirically is our financial status, both individually and as a nation. By any measurement you use, we are both the most materialistic and the most indebted we have ever been; in other words, we have more stuff, but we have no idea how we’re going to pay for it.

Our national debt is so high that it defies understanding, and our personal debt – shown in increasing bankruptcy and foreclosure rates – illustrate that in the area of financial management, we are definitely not heading in a good direction.

 

What about educationally? Despite an increase of billions and billions of tax dollars during the past few decades, our public education system is certainly not improving. One education historian postulated that American education had lost, on average, almost one year of academic achievement per decade throughout the 20th century.

As D. James Kennedy wrote in his excellent book, How Would Jesus Vote?, this means that if you have a college diploma, you have about the same education a sixth-grader had near the turn of the last century.

If you think that to be nonsensical, consider some questions Kennedy shared that were asked of sixth-graders in 1905: “An arithmetic question asked us to find the interest on an eight percent note for nine hundred dollars running two years, two months and six days.”

(And, because calculators hadn’t been invented yet…)

“In history we were to name the principal political positions which have been advocated since the Civil War and the party which advocated each.”

(If you’ve ever seen one of Jay Leno’s “Jaywalking” segments, you know that many Americans can’t even identifythe vice president or leaders in Congress, much less describe their positions.)

“The orthography quiz asked us to spell twenty words, including elucidation and animosity.”

(And, if you don’t know what orthography, elucidation or animosity mean, you are proving the point.)

Kennedy also cited recent test results that found that 95 percent of college students couldn’t find Vietnam on a map, and, even more disheartening than that, 45 percent of high schoolers in Baltimore couldn’t find the United States on a world map. Our young people today are without doubt more sophisticated and tech-savvy, but they are certainlynot better educated.

We’ll look at a few examples from other arenas in my next column. Until then, as you hear politicians and pundits talk about how things are going to be better, ask yourself if the direction they are proposing is the direction in which you want to go.

After all, even if, as the Bible indicates, God created a perfect world, and it has been “de-volving”’ ever since. We all want to think about making the world a better place. The question is, how to go about this quest for “progress.”

As the eminent C.S. Lewis wrote in his classic book Mere Christianity, “We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turn, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. . .There is nothing progressive about being pigheaded and refusing to admit a mistake."

Oh, that we – and our nation’s leaders – would take heed.

 

Chuck Souder is on staff at Shelby Christian Church. He can be reached at csouder@shelbychristian.org. You can find previous columns at www.SentinelNews.com/columnsor by searching the Web site for “Souder.”