How can we express a hopeful worldview without raising the heckles of the unconvinced?
Optimism breeds complacency.
This thought disturbs me, because I suspect that in many cases, it’s true.
As I encourage students and educationalists – and, let’s be honest, pretty much everyone I meet – to adopt a more hopeful worldview, I repeatedly emphasise that social progress* does not come naturally, and that we shouldn’t just sit back and wait for things to get better. Social progress is hard-fought and I believe that we all need to play a part in such a fight.
Sometimes, however, this nuance is lost, and some people will hear what they want to hear, which is a passive sense of ‘things are fine, and they are going to be OK’.
Nevertheless, I have convinced myself that so long as most of my audience takes away the message that only active hope – “a verb with its sleeves rolled up” as David Orr puts it – can lead to a brighter future, then this will somehow outweigh the minority who might walk away with a sense of complacency.
But it’s not just a fear of instilling complacency that stops me going full throttle on the Hopeful Education journey.
It’s also a fear of being labelled arrogant and insensitive.
Solnit and Pinker
Who would you rather have a chat with – Rebecca Solnit or Steven Pinker?
Solnit is an American author, columnist, activist and cultural historian, whose book ‘Hope in the Dark’ has inspired me and which I recommend to anyone interested in the journey towards a more hopeful education.
Pinker is a Canadian-American author, university professor and public intellectual, whose books ‘The Better Angels of our Nature’ and ‘Enlightenment Now’ have also informed my hopeful worldview.
Both writers espouse hope for the future, but the former has managed to do so in a way that powerfully energises the reader into action which might go some way to the realisation of that hope, whilst the latter strikes a tone which can come across as overbearing, even to readers who might be sympathetic to his optimistic outlook.
It’s not that most of the evidential basis of Pinker’s work is shoddy (although some appears to be rather selectively included). He shares Solnit’s celebration of, for example, the decline of war and overt discrimination, and long-term improvements in human rights, health and living conditions for most people in most parts of the world. It’s something else.
Nathan Robinson is one of Pinker’s most outspoken critics, but even he gracefully states that “I actually agree with perhaps 80 percent or more of what is contained in Enlightenment Now, insofar as it is simply presenting statistics showing that crime has dropped and we are not presently in a world war, or making arguments for secular humanism and democracy.” He also acknowledges that Pinker includes plenty of caveats in his work (such as stating that progress is unevenly distributed between places and sometimes proceeds haltingly).
So, what is it about Pinker, and some other members of the so-called ‘new optimists’, which rankles with Robinson and so many others who may be characterised as coming from the left?
Robinson (2019) puts it thus:
“[Pinker] (1) staunchly defends the inequality produced by free-market capitalism, (2) is irrationally dismissive of the scale of the risks facing humankind, (3) trivializes present-day human pain and suffering, (4) whitewashes U.S. crimes and minimizes the dangers of U.S. military aggression, (5) repeats right-wing smears about anti-racist and feminist ideas, and (6) has a colossal ignorance about the workings of politics and the struggle necessary to achieve further human progress.”
In short, Pinker is politically naïve (or wilfully ignorant) and emotionally insensitive.
I have been enthused by many of Pinker’s writings, and I subscribe to his broad argument that, by and large, humanity has thrived in recent decades. However, his way of communicating is often prickly and patronising. Take, for example, his belief that “Everything is amazing… none of us are as happy as we ought to be, given how amazing our world has become” (pp283-4).
Mike Freiheit’s cartoon highlights the perils of promoting an optimistic message in complex social contexts:
Facts and stories
Tone is one thing. Content is another. And both need to be well judged in order to encourage the adoption of a more hopeful worldview.
If we can’t measure how trends in say, infant mortality, change over time, then we are intellectually hobbled, and we end up discussing matters without adequate evidence. As Solnit says:
“When you don’t know how much things have changed, you don’t see that they are changing or that they can change” (Solinit, p.xvii)
Of course, we should be critical of gaps and biases in data, and aware of statistical blind spots and wilful misreporting or misreading of data. But without data, we cannot build a powerful case for a more hopeful future. Pinker, along with many other sources such as Our World in Data, and Gapminder, provide us with plenty of data with which to do so.
Nevertheless, stories are usually more persuasive than cold, hard, quantitative data, and they should also be part of the hopeful educator’s armoury. The anecdotes which feature in Solnit’s work are moving, affirmative and serve to foster a sense of empathy in the reader. Solnit recognises this:
“The revolution that counts is the one that takes place in the imagination; many kinds of change issue forth thereafter, some gradual and subtle, some dramatic and conflict-ridden” (p26). Solnit also recognises that “Stories move faster in our time” (p28) and that we need stories to retell previous victories:
“We need litanies or recitations or monuments to those victories, so that they are landmarks in everyone’s mind. More broadly, shifts in, say, the status of women are easily overlooked by people who don’t remember that, a few decades ago, reproductive rights were not yet a concept, and there was no recourse for exclusion, discrimination, workplace sexual harassment, most forms of rape, and other crimes against women the legal system did not recognize or even countenanced… People adjust without assessing the changes” (p.xix).
How to win friends and influence people
Nathan Robinson points to another flaw of Pinker’s approach: his patronising nature. He says that Pinker is not alone: like many other commentators, “They all want to explain before they’ve empathized, irrationally diagnose others’ irrationality, insist that their ideology isn’t an ideology while ours is.”
Battles of ideas are usually won on the basis of emboldening your allies and persuading the undecided, uninitiated, or indifferent. Pinker arguably fails on the second count. Rather than cultivating a broad church of optimists, he manages to insult and demean many people who could have been allies. This might be thanks to statements such as “People will complain about anything” (p60), or it might be thanks to more targeted assaults.
Take, for example, the broad church of thinkers who could be labelled ‘progressives’. Pinker loves to rile them: “Intellectuals hate progress. Intellectuals who call themselves ‘progressives’ really hate progress” (p39; emphasis in original). Pinker also embarks upon this anti-‘progressive’ tirade in his otherwise thought-provoking TED talk. https://www.ted.com/talks/steven_pinker_is_the_world_getting_better_or_worse_a_look_at_the_numbers
In contrast, Solnit seeks to broaden and embolden the hopeful coalition: she outlines
“this vast, inchoate, nameless movement – not a political movement but a global restlessness, a pervasive shift of imagination and desire – that has recently appeared in almost every part of the world. This, I think, has only just begun, and though it has achieved countless small-scale victories around the world, what its creativity and power will achieve is yet unimaginable” (p109)
Where does this leave hopeful education?
Both Pinker and Solnit offer valuable insights which may feed a more hopeful education.
As educators, we must make careful decisions not only in terms of what we teach about ‘progress’ and the future, but also in terms of the ways in which we deliver such content. Young people – like people of all ages – are sensitive and emotional, and they will respond better to messages of hope if the curriculum is designed and delivered in ways which respect this.
A carefully delivered hopeful curriculum must acknowledge the risks of complacency, arrogance and insensitivity, and meet them head-on. Infused with a humbler sense of hope, our young people will then be able to approach the challenges of local and global citizenship confidently and collaboratively.
* Of course, what constitutes ‘social progress’ is contested, and such discussions are beyond the scope of this blog post.
Pinker, S. (2019) Enlightenment Now London: Penguin
Robinson, N. (2019) The world’s most annoying man – https://www.currentaffairs.org/2019/05/the-worlds-most-annoying-man (accessed 10 December 2021)
Solnit, R. (2016) Hope in the Dark (3rd edition) Edinburgh: Canongate Books