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When you hear the word ‘meliorism‘ what comes to mind?
There are many -isms in the world. What distinguishes meliorism from things like pessimism, optimism, humanism, and pluralism? Who influenced our thinking in these areas?
What part do we, or don’t we play in melioristic pursuits?
Meliorism, whether it’s global, social, and whatever might be in between is the focus of this article. Before we start, let’s get on the same page with a definition of meliorism.
This article contains:
What is Meliorism (Meaning + Definition)
Meliorism is a philosophical belief that it’s in a person’s nature to improve the world. Accomplishing this happens through large and small efforts.
The Webster’s Unabridged Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language defines meliorism as:
the doctrine that the world tends to become better, or may be made better by human effort.
What makes up human effort is debatable, but for our purposes, we’ll use the following:
deliberate exertions of physical or mental power.
British Novelist George Eliot coined the word meliorist in 1868, but its use occurred at least 40 years prior. Meliorism comes from the Latin word melior which means “better” (Merriam-Webster, 2019).
She considered herself neither an optimist nor a pessimist. Eliot created the term as a way to describe the mid-point between optimism and pessimism. She believed in “gradual improvement of the mass” (Online Etymology Dictionary, 2019). Eliot also believed to achieve happiness people must help each other.
If you’re looking for an interesting read, check out ‘Scientific Meliorism and the Evolution of Happiness‘, by Jane Hume Clapperton. She was a social reformer and philosopher. Clapperton dedicated the book to two of her teachers. George Elliot being one of them.
The Philosophy Behind Meliorism
A meliorist, a pessimist, and an optimist are eating dinner. A server approaches the table inquiring if everything is all right. The pessimist orders another pint when his glass is half empty. The optimist orders it when it’s half full. The meliorist finishes the drink, before deciding to buy another pint. The server will return.
Pessimism and optimism assume that progress or decline is “inevitable.” Koopman (2006) asserts that the focus of meliorism is to make faster improvements and “mitigate our decline.”
Meliorism is part hope part reality, and future-focused. This perspective allows one to see what’s happening, assess it for its pros and cons, and then take action. The actions taken are always in the service of making life better for members of society.
Philosophers often discuss the relationship between meliorism and pragmatism. Pragmatism has at its roots in pluralism and humanism, it also includes an element of hope. Meliorism is a combination of pluralism and humanism.
Pluralism means that “the realities we inhabit are many,” and that people make definitive contributions to this “pluriverse” (Koopman, 2006). This last part is humanism from the perspective of philosophy.
According to Koopman (2006), meliorism is hopefulness. This is where pragmatic meliorism has its beginnings.
In James Pawelski’s (2018) article, William James and Well-being: The philosophy, psychology, and culture of human flourishing, he distinguishes between two types of meliorism. One is mitigative and the other is constructive. The former fights against the things we don’t want in the world. For example, injustice. The latter infuses the world with good because it increases those things we do want. For example, if there’s plenty to eat, then no one goes hungry. Both are essential to meliorism.
His article is a great read! In the article, he offers a fabulous illustration of these points. Imagine you discover a genie in some flea market purchase. The genie, understanding that you’re a good person offers you two capes. The first is red and the second is green. The red cape allows you the power to get rid of all of the world’s ills through fighting. The green cape gives you the ability to do the same thing, but through kinder, gentler means. Which do you choose?
In the end, it doesn’t matter. Both yield similar results. They are two ways to do the same thing: improve the world.
If you’re interested in learning more about pragmatic meliorism, check out these books from:
John Dewey – Experience and Education which is an analysis of the traditional and progressive education agendas in the U.S. (Visit Amazon)
Ralph Waldo Emerson – The essential writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson includes a selection of his essays, speeches, and poetry. (Visit Amazon)
Richard Rorty – Achieving our country: Leftist thought in twentieth-century America analyzes what Rorty calls the ‘old left’ and the ‘new left.’ Do past injustices ruin any hope for the future? This is one question posed by his book. (Visit Amazon)
William James – William James: Writings 1902-1910: The Varieties of religious experience/ Pragmatism/ A pluralistic universe/ The meaning of truth/ Some problems of philosophy/ Essays. This book represents all his major work. (Visit Amazon for the comprehensive edition)
Meliorism and Psychology
As mentioned above, meliorism includes humanism. In psychology, this is the study of the whole person. Abraham Maslow, Rollo May, and Carl Rogers popularized the study of humanistic psychology. These theorists focused on how people can thrive and flourish. The underlying belief is melioristic.
The Hierarchy of Needs created by Abraham Maslow addresses everything from physiological needs to self-transcendence. Each happens in turn. For example, if basic needs (food, shelter, clothing, security) aren’t met, then a person isn’t as concerned with higher needs.
One aspect that distinguishes May from this group is his willingness to explore the tragic experiences of life. The preeminent existentialist wrote in his book ‘The Meaning of Anxiety‘:
But attempts to evade anxiety are not only doomed to failure. In running from anxiety you lose your most precious opportunities for the emergence of yourself, and for your education as human being.
The onus is on us even in dark times.
In ‘Freedom and Destiny‘, he wrote,
Freedom is the capacity to pause in the face of stimuli from many directions at once and, in this pause, to throw one’s weight toward this response rather than that one.
Rollo’s emphasis on agency fits well within the philosophy of meliorism.
Carl Rogers’ focus on person-centered therapy was a precursor to positive psychology. He believed therapy could be more optimistic and the therapist could express greater empathy (Rogers, 1957).
Rogers’ perspective was that clients, through an understanding of their own subjective experience, would heal faster and better. Again, this was a radical departure from the behavioral or Freudian approaches. In those therapies, the psychotherapist took the role of leader in the client-therapist relationship. Rogers’ approach is a partnership between both parties.
A Look at Social Meliorism
Social meliorists believe in improvement beyond what is naturally occurring. They believe that people can affect processes and create changes that benefit many. These individuals see the world as it is with all its problems, and say, “change is possible!” They seek to solve the world’s ills whether that be curing a disease, cleaning up the ocean, or improving education.
Social meliorists tend to concern themselves with several -isms of society. These -isms often involve negative prejudgment of others, the purpose of which is to “maintain control and power over the person” (Sexual Assault Support Center, n.d.). They include: racism, sexism, classism, ableism, Anti-Semitism, Ageism, and heterosexism.
You might be a social meliorist if:
- You believe in improving society for everyone and creating changes to that end.
- You believe in a person’s ability to change or better the world through effort.
You also would find yourself among several notable others including these Nobel Prize winners:
Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad (2018) “for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.”
Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai (2014) “for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.”
Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) (2013) “for its extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons.”
Liu Xiaobo (2010) “for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.”
Barack Obama, (2009) “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.”
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Albert Arnold (Al) Gore Jr. (2007) “for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change.”
Of course, you need not be a Nobel Prize winner to pursue social meliorist activities!
20 Examples of Meliorism
It’s easy to spot examples of people striving to improve the world around them. Here are a few to inspire you!
Brad Montague and Robby Novak worked together to create Kid President. Novak, a survivor of bullying, showcased a message of hope and love. Their 115 episodes, viewed 6,628,844 times, challenge us to “treat everyone like it’s their birthday.” Kid President partnered with Soul Pancake to reach a wider audience. Soul Pancake has 3,035,518 subscribers all searching for inspiration, hope, love, and joy.
Novak has osteogenesis imperfecta. This causes brittle bones. Born in 2004, he’s spent considerable time in and out of hospitals, but it hasn’t slowed him down!
Enjoy this video from Kid President.
How to change the world:
The Ocean Cleanup
Boyan Slat founded the non-profit after giving his TedTalk at the age of 17. His invention gets rid of plastic in the ocean by working with the ocean’s currents. They estimate that their system can clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) in five years. This is an area located halfway between Hawaii and California. It’s the largest of five such zones where plastic accumulates.
Lead in Water
Inspired by the troubles in Flint, Michigan 11-year-old Gitanjali Rao began testing solutions. Using carbon nanotube technology to detect lead in water, she found one! Her design led to her being named “America’s top young scientist” in 2018. It’s called Tethy for the Greek goddess of fresh water. Check out her TedTalk for more inspiration.
Student Salima Visram invented the Soular Backpack, after a reality-check from her mom. Visram had been complaining about exams. Her mother pointed out how privileged Visram was when compared to other girls. She related a story about child prostitution resulting in pregnancies and two deaths. Visram stopped complaining. The story stayed with her. It inspired her to find a solution that would enable more children, especially girls, to attend school.
You can hear about it in this TedxMontrealWomen talk.
Easton LaChappelle invented his robotic hand using Legos. Then, he used a 3D printer to create a prototype. This led to NASA inviting him to join their Robonaut team.
Elif Bilgin figured out a way to turn banana peels into bioplastic. She’s won two awards so far: “The Science in action Prize,” and “Inspired Idea Award.” Check out her TedxVienna talk.
11-year-old Kylie Simonds designed an IV backpack. As a cancer survivor, she understood the awkwardness of receiving chemotherapy. Walking around with an IV pole causes a lot of unwanted attention from others. She hopes the backpack helps kids feel less awkward while undergoing treatment.
Learn more about this amazing young person.
Imagine flying without fear of catching someone else’s cold, or worse. Raymond Wang invented a device that creates “personalized breathing zones” on airplanes. It’s cost-effective, installs overnight, and works! He called 2016 the “golden era of innovation.”
Clean Polluted Streams
Paige Brown created a cheap and effective method for cleaning polluted streams. Her design uses “alginate” derived from seaweed, aluminum, and magnesium mixed together to form globs. She placed the globs inside hair clips held together by a block of foam.
Brown won the Global Good Prize and $150,000 in college tuition for her efforts.
Kenneth Shinozuka invented the SafeWander Sock Sensor. Shinozuka, whose grandfather has Alzheimer’s, developed the sensor to keep his grandfather safe. It alerts family members when a relative strays from bed.
Vaxxwagon keeps vaccines cold
The VAXXWAGON, created by Anurudh Ganesan transports and keeps vaccines cold without electricity or ice. Ganesan won the LEGO Education Builder Award.
Keeping the Environment Clean
Maria Elena Grimmett is the youngest person published in the Journal of Environmental Quality. Her research began in third-grade science class. Now, she’s developed a way to remove a harmful antibiotic out of water using small resin beads. The antibiotic gets trapped in the small holes in the beads while water passes through.
Here’s her article if you want to learn more!
Do you remember the Ebola outbreak from 2014? Olivia Hallisey was 16-years-old then. Hallisey, involved in a research science class at the time, needed a topic. She decided to investigate ways to identify Ebola sooner and faster. She figured out a cheap and effective process to screen for the disease.
DIY Water filter
Lalita Prasida Sripada Srisai won the Community Impact Award at the Google Science Fair in 2015. Using various sizes of corn cobs and charcoal, her device filters water.
Utkarsh Tandon won the Young Innovators to Watch Award scholarship at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show (CES). He invented OneRing. It’s a wearable ring for Parkinson’s patients. Working with an IOS application, it helps to document their symptoms. This allows doctors to more effectively prescribe medication.
Remote Medicine Dispenser
Teen inventor, and former Shark Tank guest, Brooke Martin created iC LovedOnes. The device allows for two-way chat and the ability to dispense medication or vitamins. It’s internet-enabled and works remotely.
Richard Turere, a 13-year-old Kenyan, created a way to stop lions from attacking his father’s livestock. His simple solution? Blinking lights. Lions don’t like them! His method is being used throughout the region and he received a scholarship to one of the best schools in Kenya.
Watch his TedTalk. Richard’s storytelling and humor are fabulous.
Creative Scrap Recycler
Inventor Kelvin Doe works with scrap electronic parts to build batteries, transmitters, and generators. MIT invited Kelvin to the “Visiting Practitioner’s Program. He’s the youngest person to receive this honor.
Flying Doctors Nigeria
Ola Orekunri is the Managing Director of Flying Doctors Nigeria Ltd, West Africa’s first air ambulance service. Her group provides medical care throughout remote areas where it’s needed most.
Young Scientist and Researcher
At 16-years-old, Andrea Pugh received second-place in the 2010 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. She was named one of 25 Young Futurists in 2011. In the fall of 2012, she was awarded an NOAA Environmental Cooperative Science Center Scholarship among others. She’s the namesake of a minor planet. Pugh’s research focus is “Biochar and its value in improving soil and water quality” (NOAA, n.d.).
This list could get long and from a melioristic perspective, that’s awesome! Worldwide we’re witnessing constant and consistent acts of meliorism.
Social Meliorism Curriculum Theory
In a broad sense, curriculum theory (CT) is the “interdisciplinary study of educational experience” (Pinar, 2004). It’s concerned with values, curriculum use throughout history, policy, and future curriculum. CT draws from education, psychology, sociology, and philosophy.
Four theories drive education in the United States according to Herbert Kliebard.
Kliebard was an education historian. His book, ‘The struggle for the American Curriculum’, made him famous. In it, he argues that four types of curricula have battled for the top position in American education. They are:
- Social Efficiency – The purpose of this type of curriculum is to prepare students to go to work. The emphasis is testing and matching the student to a specific role in society. Vocational education programs are an example of the social efficiency model.
- Humanism – This curriculum’s focus is teaching literature, history, foreign language, the arts, and science. Proponents want students to develop intellectual skills, not specific work skills.
- Social Meliorism – Supporters want a curriculum that focuses on improving society. They push for courses that solve real-world problems like racism, sexism, drug abuse, and the school-to-prison pipeline. Race, gender, socio-economic status, and other factors don’t determine a student’s future. This reflects the reform movement in US education (Merickel, 1998).
- Developmentalism – The curriculum is learner-focused. It’s based on the psychological development of the student (Merickel, 1998). Some supporters push for differentiated instruction. This means teachers tailor their instruction to meet individual needs. Critics believe this is unrealistic because classroom size varies by state. The 2018-19 student-teacher ratio is 16:1 (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2019).
View this interactive Class size map (2010) for teacher-student ratio in the USA.
Throughout American educational history, each of these has had its turn at the helm. Developmental is the least favored. They’ve also mixed and matched with each other (Labaree, 1987). Politics and the economy influence which approach becomes dominant.
The current position pushes states to achieve specific standards through testing. This started with No Child Left Behind in 2002. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) replaced it in 2015. Both laws had bipartisan support.
The primary goal of ESSA is “fully preparing all students for success in college and careers” (US Dept. of Ed., n.d.).
Under ESSA, states have more control over assessments and accountability systems (Close, Amrein-Beardsley, & Collins, 2018). For example, each state determines the standards used to evaluate teachers and students.
ESSA requires testing beginning in third through eighth grade. During the junior year of high school students take a final test.
Teachers’ evaluations are less tied to standardized test scores under ESSA. Its passage gave states more leeway when interpreting some concepts like, “including as a significant factor, data on student growth for all students” (Close, et al. 2018).
U.S. education is and has been for many years, a hot topic. That’s not likely to change soon. Social meliorism will remain a part of the debate whether it’s identified as such or not.
What is Global Meliorism?
At its most basic, global meliorism is the belief that the United States can eradicate poverty and defend human rights worldwide. Walter McDougall, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, explained it this way in an article for the Foreign Policy Research Institute:
Global Meliorism is the socioeconomic and cultural answer to how to make the world a better place by promoting economic growth, human rights, social reform, and democracy.
In his article, U.S. Foreign Policy Traditions and the Middle East, McDougall identified eight traditions with global meliorism being last.
The main belief of this policy is that we need to cure what causes wars, rather than fight them. The causes, according to his writing are: poverty, ignorance, oppression, and despair.
From his research, he was able to trace global meliorism to the nineteenth century. But, it didn’t begin to play a role in U.S. foreign policy until 1898. It took hold during Wilson’s presidency.
McDougall offers several examples throughout American history. Among them are the Peace Corps, Alliance for Progress, and USAID all established by John F. Kennedy.
From a political perspective, McDougall appears to view global meliorism as unnecessary interference.
In Jeffrey Bloodworth’s book, ‘Losing the Center‘, he writes that American voters “hardly cottoned to global meliorism” and that they “consistently rejected this brand of liberal foreign policy” (2013).
If you’d like to read more about the role of global meliorism in U.S. foreign policy check out:
Promised Land, Crusader State: The American encounter with the world since 1776 by Walter McDougall (Visit Amazon)
Bottom line: His book is a good primer about U.S. Foreign policy. McDougall’s style is conversational making for an easy, but comprehensive read. It’s clear that he believes the U.S. shouldn’t involve itself where it’s not wanted and can’t affect change. From his perspective, the risks are too high.
In case you’re on the fence about the positive aspects of meliorism consider these examples. They’re all from TedxTamu: Meliorism 2018.
Anthony Hermes discusses the importance of recognizing others and lifting them up. He emphasizes how doing something as simple as smiling at someone can have a ripple effect.
Shayla Rivera reminds us that we’re all genies. If we want to change our world, then we have to start with ourselves. She asks, “Are you leaving something behind on purpose, or are you just leaving something behind?”
In “I am priceless,” Regina Rowley sheds light on how to manage and survive the impact of trauma. Her experiences led her to found IAm-Priceless.org to equip and empower women on their journey.
Dustin Kemp shares what happens when you decide to finish what you start. It might take a little time, but with the right people in your corner, you can. Check out his talk, Grit(s).
We are ZOE is a non-profit working with orphans. Their approach involves the community working together to permanently move out of poverty and away from charity. The goal is to help the children learn to become sustainable on their own. Staff doesn’t do anything for the children that they can do for themselves.
How will AI affect education? What do we need to do to keep pace with machine learning? How can students compete with software? These are the questions posed by Peter Han in his talk, “Upside-down School.” He asserts we need to learn and unlearn as AI develops. As our skills become less necessary to employers, our children need to be able to handle the unknown. They need to stay one step ahead of AI to have value to employers.
Bassel Daher asks, “How will you choose to contribute?” Water, energy and food security is his focus. He shares three lessons about instituting change in this area. First, engineering isn’t enough. You must also understand the political, economic, and social elements involved. Second, the community needs to take part in the process from the beginning. Third, communication about the scientific and engineering processes must happen early and often.
Robert Wunderlich shares his knowledge about transportation risks. One hundred people die in car fatalities every day in the U.S. He and his team set out to change the statistics in Texas. They’re working with the Texas Department of Transportation to develop the Texas Strategic Highway Safety Plan.
Be they false or be they true, the meaning of them is meliorism.
Meliorism treats salvation as neither inevitable nor impossible.
Meliorism—the desire to better the conditions of life for themselves and for their children—animated them.
As an inevitable result of all the influences that constitute his world he finds himself yearning for meliorism as the crownpiece.
Francis B. Pearson
So, he becomes the eloquent apostle of meliorism, proclaiming his gospel without abatement.
Francis B. Pearson
Meliorism is the belief that the specific conditions which exist at one moment, be they comparatively bad or comparatively good, in any event may be bettered.
Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.
What is essential is to train the mind so that it is capable of finding facts as it needs them, train it to learn how to learn.
You must do the things you think you cannot do.
In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.
You have to accept whatever comes and the only important thing is that you meet it with courage and with the best that you have to give.
The self is not something ready-made, but something in continuous formation through choice of action.
Without some goals and some efforts to reach it, no man can live.
It is never too late to be what you might have been.
Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.
It will never rain roses: when we want to have more roses, we must plant more trees.
If I were dropped out of a plane into the ocean and told the nearest land was a thousand miles away, I’d still swim. And I’d despise the one who gave up.
The only person who is educated is the one who has learned how to learn and change.
Freedom is man’s capacity to take a hand in his own development. It is our capacity to mold ourselves.
One does not become fully human painlessly.
Some Parting Thoughts About Meliorism
Is it possible to finish an article about meliorism? It’s an ever-expanding concept. We moved from meliorism to social and global meliorism. Along the way, we learned the connection it has to philosophy, psychology, and education. We discovered numerous examples within those categories. There are amazing people doing phenomenal things every day. Their actions fall under the umbrella of social meliorism.
In conclusion, let me leave you with this interpretation of meliorism:
Whether you’re a meliorist or not, you have to admit there’s beauty in their expression.
How will you improve your world today?
- Close, K., Amrein-Beardsley, A., & Collins, C. (2018, June). State-level assessments and teacher evaluation systems after the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act: Some steps in the right direction. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved February 13, 2019 from http://nepc.colorado.edu/publications/state-assessment.
- Dewey, J. (1920). Reconstruction in philosophy. New York: Henry Holt & Company. p. 178
- Education Week (2010). Setting class size limits. Retrieved February 12, 2019 from https://www.edweek.org/ew/section/infographics/13class_size_map.html
- Goodreads (n.d.). The meaning of anxiety, quotes. Retrieved February 12, 2019, from https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/632288-the-meaning-of-anxiety
- James, W. (1896). Is life worth living? Philadelphia: S. Burns Weston. p.63
- Koopman, C. (2006). Pragmatism as a philosophy of hope: Emerson, James, Dewey, Rorty. The Journal of Speculative Philosophy New Series, 20(2). Essays from the meeting of the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy, p. 106-116.
- Labaree, D. F. (1987, November) Politics, markets, and the compromised curriculum. Harvard Educational Review. 57(4).
- McDougall, W. A. (2009, July 13). U.S. policy traditions and the Middle East. Program on the Middle East. Foreign Policy Research Institute. Retrieved February 13, 2019 from https://www.fpri.org/article/2009/07/u-s-foreign-policy-traditions-and-the-middle-east/
- Merickel, M. L. (1998). Integration of the disciplines: Politics and education. School of Education, Oregon State University. Retrieved February 12, 2019 from https://oregonstate.edu/instruction/ed555/zone2/politics.htm
- National Center for Educational Statistics (). Fast Facts. Retrieved February 12, 2019 from https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=372
- Nobel Prize (n.d.) Retrieved February 13, 2019 from https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/lists/all-nobel-peace-prizes/
- Pinar, W.F. (2004). What is Curriculum Theory? Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
- Popova, M. (n.d.). Existential Psychologist Rollo May on freedom and the significance of the pause. Brainpickings. Retrieved February 12, 2019 from https://www.brainpickings.org/2017/10/04/rollo-may-freedom-destiny-pause/
- Rogers, C. R. (1957). The Necessary and Sufficient Conditions of Therapeutic Personality Change. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 21, p. 95–103
- Roosevelt, E. (1960). You learn by living. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press
- Sexual Assault Support Center (n.d.) The relationship between the -isms. Retrieved February 12, 2019 from https://www.sascwr.org/files/www/resources_pdfs/anti_oppression/Definition_of_Isms.pdf
- US Department of Education (n.d.). Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Retrieved February 12, 2019 from https://www.ed.gov/essa
- 5 Quotes https://www.dictionary.com/browse/meliorism