Shallow Optimism, Deep Hope: a quick formula for resilience in education

"I am not an optimist, but I am a prisoner of hope." --Cornel West

Three quick points:

1. Apparently only 31% of students nationwide agree that "I can find many lots of ways around any problem."

2. We always ask: why aren't students more invested in their own education? The answer is because they don't own the goals that are set for the educational system. As Jessica Lahey put it in a recent tweet: "we don't wash our rental cars."

3. Hope is another word for resilience. Hope comes to us, and it sends us over and over again into situations where failure is possible. It is grounded in a durable concepts like justice, goodness, truth, and love.

Students are optimistic that they will do well on the next test because they studied over the last few days. [low resilience]

Students hope that their education makes them genuine human beings, capable of carrying out full, just, and independent lives. [high resilience]

Our school system is designed for optimism, which is fleeting, external, and dependent on that minimal thing called the human will.

We need schools and communities that are focused around hope, which draws on deeper, more spiritual resources in the human -- and hopefully exposes students to these resources, teaching them that human strength is founded in our internal capacities. These are designated by concepts like joy, friendship, truth, justice, and freedom.

Looking for resilience in kids? Simple way to find it: ask whether your interactions with them are based around resilient concepts.

Is our pedagogy founded in a shallow optimism which says that "for this kid, in this situation, given these skills, she might find her way in society that is fundamentally hostile to her growth?"

Or are our educational practices and relationships with students founded in a deep hope that says, "together through the work of community, we can make a future that is more just, more free, more true, and more connected?"

Students intuit very quickly the sort of future that our relationships with them predict -- our ways of relating to them can undermine or generate hope in them and through this process either sap them of resilience or open them to the deep stores of strength and possibility that liberal education at its best sustains generation after generation.

What is liberal arts education? Put simply: it is a community practice of deep hope.


  1. I read your post and this article on the same morning:

  2. Got this tidbit from a (teaching) newsletter that comes out every Wednesday/Thursday:

    "Self-confidence, responsibility, character, and resiliency all find their foundation in the same place. They grow out of the opportunities children create when they make poor decisions and are faced with the consequences that follow.

    Wise parents over-ride their own natural tendencies to rescue or to tell kids how to deal with these opportunities. If they don't, the opportunities are lost. Over a period of time, youngsters start to believe that others are smarter and more capable than they are.

    Jake called his dad from college to say that his car had been towed. He tried to explain that it wasn't his fault because the parking sign was not easy to see.

    Dad replied, "Oh, that is sad. What do you think you are going to do?"

    "Well, Dad, I was thinking you need to send me $200 so I can get the car out of the impound lot."

    "Yes, son. That would be nice, but since I didn't park the car, I'm not paying to get it back. Let me know how you work it out."

    Jake called back later to talk to Mom, saying that he had applied for three different jobs.

    "I don't want to talk to Dad right now. I want to wait until I have the job and solve this problem. Then he’ll be really proud of me."

    Now that’s what I call a classic opportunity. Dad handed the problem back and the son discovered how capable he was."

    Of course, it is not just that simple. It takes a long time (or does it?) to cultivate those kind of relationships. It takes a long time to figure out exactly where learning comes from as well.


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