Are J. S. Mill’s Views About Progress Still Relevant Today?

John Stuart Mill assisted in the triumph of the idea of progress in the 19th Century but he also had concerns about the future that still seem relevant today. Richard Reeves comments: ‘Mill was not a knee-jerk critic of what Ruskin dismissed as the “steam whistle society”, but nor was he a blind advocate of industrialization for its own sake. As an avid botanist and walker, he was acutely sensitive to what would today be called environmental concerns’ (‘John Stuart Mill, Victorian Firebrand’: 233).

I will focus here on the views on progress and, in particular, concerns about public opinion that Mill put forward in ‘Civilisation’, published in 1836, when he was about 30 years old.

Mill identified three characteristics of civilisation:
• the development of commerce, manufactures and agriculture;
• people acting together for common purposes in large organisations; and
• peace being maintained within society through arrangements for protecting the person and property of members.
He suggests: ‘Wherever there has arisen sufficient knowledge of the arts of life, and sufficient security of property and person, to render the progressive increase of wealth and population possible, the community becomes and continues progressive in all the elements which we have just enumerated’.

Mill goes on to argue that the most remarkable consequence of advancing civilization is ‘that power passes more and more from individuals, and small knots of individuals, to masses: that the importance of the masses becomes constantly greater, that of individuals less’. He gives several reasons: economic growth results in the growth of a middle class and the dispersion of knowledge; the development of habits of cooperation and discipline in large organizations enable development of associations of different kinds, including benefit societies and trades unions; and improved communications through newspapers that enable people to learn that others feel as they feel.

Mill argued that political reform would follow inevitably: ‘The triumph of democracy, or, in other words, of the government of public opinion, does not depend upon the opinion of any individual or set of individuals that it ought to triumph, but upon the natural laws of the progress of wealth, upon the diffusion of reading, and the increase of the facilities of human intercourse’.

Mill’s concern about the growth in power of public opinion was that the individual would become lost in the crowd; although the individual depends more and more on opinion (reputation) he is apt to depend less and less upon the well-grounded opinions of those who know him. Mill suggested that with the growth in power of public opinion ‘arts for attracting public attention formed a necessary part of the qualifications even of the deserving’. His main concern was that ‘growing insignificance of the individual in the mass’ … ‘corrupts the very foundation on the improvement of public opinion itself; it corrupts public teaching; it weakens the influence of the more cultivated few over the many’.

One for the remedies that Mill proposed was ‘national institutions of education, and forms of polity, calculated to invigorate the individual character. Mill then proceeded to castigate the English universities for acting as though the object of education was to inculcate the teacher’s own opinions in order to produce disciples rather than thinkers or inquirers. Mill wrote: ‘The very corner-stone of an education intended to form great minds, must be the recognition of the principle, that the object is to call forth the greatest possible quantity of intellectual power, and to inspire the intensest love of truth: and this without a particle of regard to the results to which the exercise of that power may lead, even though it should conduct the pupil to opinions diametrically opposite to those of his teachers’.

Massive changes have occurred in university education over the last 174 years, some of which correspond to Mill’s suggestions. Does this mean that Mill’s views on university education are now of only historical relevance? Do our universities now inspire the intensest love of truth? Are these standards of truth-seeking now reflected in the mass media and politics?

Unfortunately, there seem to be many people in universities these days who would regard Mill’s aim of inspiring the intensest love of truth as a philosophically suspect idea that is inconsistent with the modern purpose of universities in training technicians and inculcating them with politically correct views.

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