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Liberal hope in education

Interestingly enough, one central characteristic of schooling within the distributive paradigm - its driving force — is hope. It is hope for change, without the conditions being in place for this hope to actually also result in fundamental change, rather being a process of adjustment to what is already given. Hope, then, rather than giving energy to radical change, tends to make such change obsolete. That is, hope in this context seems to be the name of a particular exercise of power keeping the distributive paradigm in place.

Even so, hope still tends to be essential for the individual life as well as societies, cultures and history, not least for religions; the hope for the liberation of the oppressed, for the truth, for enlightenment in whatever form, for a possible future (Vlieghe, 2019). Hope that things will be better in the end regardless of how hard life seems at the moment.

Nevertheless, and despite the importance of hope of a better life as an essential motivation for the oppressed to mobilize, and as a driving force of politics as theorized by Paolo Freire (2000) among others, I still think it is too vague a concept to really do its work in education, to work as a strategy for change.

Richard Rorty (1982) tends to ground his (liberal) project on the promotion of hope. While criticizing Michel Foucault for not giving a reason for hope, he praised John Dewey for supposedly giving such hope for things to change for the better: “Although Foucault and Dewey are trying to do the same thing, Dewey seems to me to have done it better, simply because his vocabulary allows room for unjustifiable hope, and an ungrounded but vital sense of human solidarity” (Rorty, 1982, p. 208).

Even though I do find Rorty’s neopragmatism sympathetic, particularly through his insistence on anti-foundationalism as well as his reliance on human solidarity, and 1 do find that there is something truly hopeful (in the everyday sense of the word) in that, I still think Rorty is wrong in placing so much emphasis on the possibility of hope as a distinct feature of his neopragmatism, as he seems to be doing in this quote. For one thing, it is not all that clear that Foucault did not give reasons for hope, merely because he focused on the dark side of human endeavours, he committed himself to trace the mechanisms of oppression, and largely did choose the side of those who have been excluded over the course of history. As Zygmunt Bauman (2004) says, he sided with the precarious populations, or in Bauman’s words “wasted lives”.

My concern, besides the problems discussed above, is that hope tends to be fixed in an ever-distant future and therefore not to acknowledge the imperfections of life from which it emerges. To overemphasize hope seems to me to risk going blind to the violence of social life in which we live in the present (where ordinary families are left on the streets of European cities in the so-called housing crisis; where a steadily increasing number of children in rich countries such as UK and Ireland do not have access to enough food, to mention just a few disturbing realities today). I think we rather need to acknowledge the dark side of human endeavours, as Foucault did, and what Sharon Todd (2009) calls the imperfections of human life, in order to understand humanness as already containing the capacity for violence and oppression as well as solidarity and hope.

Therefore, I think Richard Rorty makes an unfortunate distinction between no-hope Foucault and all-hope Dewey, since it tends to disqualify the need to acknowledge the imperfections of life in order for hope not only to be praise for an exclusive and expanding hopeful “we” (in which solidarity for Rorty comes down to his we-intentions, which creates a problematic relation to the other as such).

In my view, hope without acknowledging the dark side of human history, its violent character, and its history of oppression and power leads nowhere and introduces a severe limitation on education being a force for change in the present. An ungrounded hope as a lived experience, and not only as an epistemological claim, does not seem to understand the social energy produced by realizing that one’s misfortune and hardship in life is not a necessary condition of life, but a result of certain hegemonic power relations (Gramsci, 2003; Foucault, 2002; Hall, 1997; Laclau & Mouffe, 1985). It seems as if Rorty’s neopragmatism makes hope powerless, more of a decoration on the cake, than actually realizing that someone already has most of the cake and is eating it, too.

 
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