Columns / Discourse / January 21, 2015

Progressivism: At Knox and beyond

I am a progressive. It’s a label many both in and outside of Knox adhere to, but what does it mean? Many self-identified progressives including myself often have struggled pinpointing progressive opinions and policy in an ideologically diverse society.

Progressivism has been long associated with the American Left since its formation as a political movement starting in the late 19th century. It was a movement which stemmed from the belief that unfettered change and modernization can often be detrimental to society and therefore not true progress.

 From its foundation as a political movement at the turn of the 20th century to its current incarnation today, progressivism has taken various forms. These forms include the famous trust-busting “Bull Moose” progressivism of President Theodore Roosevelt to the more contemporary economically just form of progressivism of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. Progressivism is as much a rejection of the notion of total progress brought about by the industrial revolution as it is a philosophy on the government’s role in society.

Progressives tend to believe that government can be a force for good. While progressives realize that government is not perfect, we tend to see government as a check on imperfections and vices of human nature that tend to come as a side effect of our freedoms. In turn, true progressivism realizes that this cannot happen without people becoming actively involved and often critical of their government so the government does not overstep their boundaries, or on the flip side evade their responsibilities to its people.

Just merely existing as a progressive is not enough. One is not a progressive by just merely touting their progressivism; they must act upon their notion of progressivism. One must work toward bringing out the good in themselves, and in extension, others. Ideally, progressivism is a movement, not an ideology.

The history of Knox College often seems to intertwine with the history of progressivism in the United States. In 1858 Abraham Lincoln, whose views are often touted as a precursor to progressivism, spoke in front of Old Main as part of the historic Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858.

The content of Lincoln’s speech was the first time the future President of the United States spoke of his own moral opposition to slavery. At the Galesburg debate, the overlying theme of Lincoln’s anti-slavery stance was in short that freedom does not give us a license to do what is clearly wrong. This view when applied to issues of past (e.g. slavery) to present (e.g. economic inequality) is at the cornerstone of progressive philosophy.

Knox College’s progressive past is certainly not an excuse for a less progressive future at Knox. Knox’s active past is not a license for our present day apathy. Today I came across a brochure for prospective Knox students. The brochure, which put a huge emphasis on the college’s progressive past, has at least three different images of our 16th president on its cover.

Yet, the present state of progressivism at Knox College is much more dismal than it was during the 19th and 20th centuries. The example of Ariyana Smith’s protest at Fontbonne University come to mind. In last week’s TKS story on the subject, Smith told TKS that “it’s pretty sad that collectively we are more concerned with pretending like everything is OK rather than actually making sure everything is OK.”

The reaction to Smith’s protest on the court of Fontbonne University seems to be one taken by a Division I school focused on its image rather than the Division III school that prides itself on its positive impact within the community and within society as a whole. It seems that reality is presently somewhere in between these two generalizations.

Knox College’s present and future should reflect its progressive past. I hope to use this column as a means of inviting the readers of TKS to join me in creating a future for Knox College that is more congruent with its past. I wish for the future of Knox College that it is one in which the college is willing and able to be a critic of itself and society in order to bring out the best of our diverse student body.

In its most simplistic terms, progressivism is a philosophy that aims to bring out the best of humankind. I look forward to seeing what the future has in store for Knox College, and I hope that we as a student body can play an active part in shaping the future of Knox College.


Tags:  ariyana smith Bull Moose Knox left liberal progressivism protest

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