Hope and grit after Obama

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama had the audacity to hope. From our couches, many citizens happily endorsed Obama’s “hope” campaign slogan. Some affirmed the message by donning Shephard Fairey’s now famous Hope t-shirts. Some took steps to aid his campaign or implement aspects of his vision. A photographer caught me doing just that on MLK Day 2009, when a friend and I took to the snow-covered streets of New Hampshire for a day of public service. My friend sported his Hope t-shirt, and I toted a sign simply saying “Believe.” But within a few months, doubt set in, and I took my seat on the couch, naively content to believe that it would get better. Two terms later and in the midst of another campaign season, many of us in schools throughout the country, from the right and left wonder, “whither hope?”

The problem is that the form of hope we boasted on campaign materials and in election year conversations doesn’t involve sustained action. During the campaign, hope was pretty passive for most couch supporters, though about 8 million others did respond to Obama’s call for collaborative and citizen‐led undertakings initially. For passive couch supporters, a person had hope but didn’t do anything about it beyond casting a ballot. For those who joined Obama’s ranks, only about 5% remained active just two years later, despite a $30-million effort to revive Organizing for America (Newton-Small, September 9, 2010). Nearly eight years later many of us find ourselves disappointed because passive hoping, perhaps better described as simple optimism, is not sufficient for achieving genuine “change”—notably the other iconic image of the Obama campaign.

In the course of his presidency, grit has come to the forefront in K-12 education and is seeping into higher education as well. Moving beyond simple optimism, champions of grit, such as University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth, assure us that if we not only work hard but stay loyal to the overarching and distant goals we set for ourselves across time and through all obstacles we face, we are likely to find success. Perhaps when the hopeful spirit of citizen renewal fell flat following the election, we turned instead to rugged individualism to carry on. We reaffirmed Herbert Hoover’s declaration that Americans should rely on themselves and not on their government nor its leaders. Perhaps this lent appeal to the educational construct of grit, leading it to be picked up by major K-12 school districts across the country and even celebrated as a new measurement of school evaluation within our national testing policies.

But much like campaign-slogan hope, grit is hard to sustain. It tells us to keep doggedly pursuing our own individual goals but not how to revise them through careful inquiry into the world around us or through conversations with others. Nor does it show us how to question the implications of our goals and their single-minded pursuit on our well-being or that of others. It tells us to hunker down and endure hardship with our eyes on the prize in the future. This includes withstanding systems of oppression or injustice that thwart our goals, rather than addressing or changing those systems. Employing grit doesn’t help to change those circumstances to make one’s future efforts of those of others easier. We are left with individual students, going it alone, personally bearing responsibility for their success or failure. They are actively pursuing their personal goals but passively leaving our world unimproved. Surely this is not the hope that we desire — a hope that must be more flexible and more social.

Hope must be acted upon in present and sustained ways. This is especially the case in education, where we can cultivate hope within our students. To help craft an improved understanding of hope, I draw on educational philosopher John Dewey. While he himself did not write at length about hope, his writings on growth, flourishing, and habits can be pieced together to form a viable notion of hope. For Dewey, hope begins with inquiry and problem solving. This process that can be guided by teachers and professors, where students explore and test out opportunities that are presented in moments where we aren’t sure how to proceed. Hope arises in these instances of uncertainty and complexity, moments instructors can craft or facilitate in the classroom. Rather than holding fixed goals, Dewey encourages a process of growth that allows for a complicated trajectory. We should set goals, but hold them as what he calls “ends in view.” They can be adapted or dropped pending the results of our inquiries or changes in our environment. Each learning experience shapes us, igniting our curiosity, leading us through future struggles, influencing our future inquiries, and leading us to new opportunities for reflection and further learning. Hope is what moves us forward through experimentation as we traverse our complicated paths.

Rather than naïve optimism —  a passive, rose-colored glasses vision of the future — Dewey advocates meliorism, essentially “the idea that at least there is a sufficient basis of goodness in life and its conditions so that by thought and earnest effort we may constantly make things better” (MW 9:294). He recognizes the difficulty of current circumstances but approaches them with thoughtful action and deliberate effort, often alongside others who are similarly stymied, working to alleviate obstacles for one’s self and others. This is not just teamwork, this is the work of education. It is the process of empirical and social inquiry where we first gather information to help us understand our circumstances — from the laws of physics to historical accounts of the origins of the systems that constrain us. We use that information to consider possible courses of action, thinking through potential results. As we hope, we use our imagination to construct creative solutions, from engineering new products to writing new novels. And when we face injustice, we speak out to demand and enact change, rather than passively tolerating it.

For Dewey, hope is a set of habits which can be cultivated in schools and colleges. Habits are proclivities to certain types of sustained action rather than mere passive belief or unquestioning pursuit of goals. Hope is a disposition toward possibility and change for the betterment of all. When we hope, we reflect on what we can reasonably expect as we calculate the influences of our present predicaments and the past events that have shaped them. Yet, we move beyond those conditions through action, inquiry, and imagination to produce new and better conditions.

Hope is tied to agency. Habits of hope provide us the support structure and intelligent reflection that enable us to become agents capable of changing ourselves and our worlds. We should think of hope as hoping, an ongoing activity. This active sense of hope suggests heightened need for education to nurture an informed and sustainable hope that can carry us into the next presidential cycle of promises and disappointments. Our schools and universities can provide the spaces and encouragement for citizens to hope together, rather than to merely pursue grit alone. Democracy is a relationship where we should test our hopes as we learn together. We should continually revise and reimagine our ways of life together, rather than chalking up our hopes on t-shirts and signs and kicking back on our couches to see what unfolds.

SARAH M. STITZLEIN (Sarah.Stitzlein@uc.edu) is a professor in the School of Education and affiliate faculty in philosophy at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio. She is the author of American Public Education and the Responsibility of Its Citizens: Supporting Democracy in the Age of Accountability (Oxford University Press, 2017).

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