In 2008, Barack Obama rallied the majority of the United States around his campaign using the word “hope” under his iconic biracial image.58 He spoke of great changes ahead and making our country a better place. Yet only a short time later, President Obama was questioned by a fourth grader who was concerned about growing anger toward political leaders. Obama responded, “If you’re watching TV lately, it seems like everyone is just getting mad all the time.”59 Indeed, we have witnessed increased anger and frustration in traditionally civil spaces of democracy, including our town halls and street cor- ners.60 This situation has magnified youths’ dissatisfaction with the political spin and adversarial nature of political life in America.61 Additionally, some poor and minority people have experienced a loss of agency, feeling as if they are unable to contribute to political life, leading them to withdraw from it.62 In this context, Americans need hope for a better functioning democracy and better social living.
Many people problematically understand hope to be a trait of individuals who are optimists, believers that things will work out for the best regardless of the current limitations. I contend, however, that hope is better understood as a habit. Like other habits it is a disposition to act and a sensitivity to a certain way of living. As a habit, hope is a disposition toward possibility and change for the betterment of oneself and others. It has more staying power and agency than merely having an optimistic outlook. Dewey sees hope as a way of living aligned with meliorism—“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 better things”63
Hope entails action and effort even in the face of current limitations, and a confidence that they can be overcome. In this way, it is worthwhile to understand hope as a habit that entails action—especially actions that engage proclivities toward change and attitudes that move us toward desirable objects or states of affairs. Additionally, hope is not just an individual trait, but rather is best nurtured through collective action. Working together enables one to see meliorism in others, reaffirms one’s drive for change, and enhances the sense that such transformation is possible. Hope is a way of being that can overcome paralyzing pessimism, cynicism, and anger insofar as it is a disposition that brings together proclivities, emotions, and intelligent reflection to motivate one to believe and act.
Hope is not merely an optimistic belief or rosy outlook. It entails what Richard Bernstein saw as a central characteristic of Deweyan pragmatism: “sensitivity to radical contingency and change”64 This includes not being complacent with social living, but striving to improve it by revealing problems, seeking inclusive input on those problems, and envisioning and implementing solutions. Rather than becoming bogged down by obstacles, hope moves us forward by identifying possibilities. In terms of democracy, a habit of hope helps us recognize that democracy is not fixed but constantly changing as the needs and demographics of its citizens change; and that we, therefore, can always make changes to associated living to improve such life for ourselves and others. Hope can help us sustain and enact a commitment to democracy, even in the face of cultural and economic shifts that are cynical of public life or that jeopardize our ability to engage in public work.
Inspired by Dewey, philosopher of education Maxine Greene defines freedom as “the capacity to surpass the given and look at things as if they could be otherwise"65 To be free in a democracy, then, depends on hopeful individuals who work together to enact their visions for change. These people put forward visions of better social living that guide and sustain other people. Sometimes, injustice limits these visions. It is the habit of hope that goads one to speak out against injustice and to offer better and alternative ways of living. Speaking out draws upon the habits of analysis and critique and may evoke feelings of frustration, but it should be done with a spirit of transformation.
Meliorism should be a criterion directing analysis and critique.66 Henry Giroux adds, “Educated hope is a subversive force. In opposition to those who seek to turn hope into a new slogan or who punish and dismiss efforts to look beyond the horizon of the given, educators need to resurrect a language of resistance and possibility, a language in which hope becomes anticipatory rather than messianic, mobilizing rather than therapeutic"67 This subversive and transformative habit is linked to political agency. Hope provides us the support structure and intelligent direction that enables us to become agents capable of changing ourselves and our world. Habits of hope move us from being merely reactionary respondents to being active agents.
Many people tend to speak of children as though they are essentially hopeful beings. Although we know that youth often offer a refreshing outlook on the world and a faith in great opportunities ahead, we certainly know this is not always the case for all children or in all communities, especially for children who have witnessed or been victims of great suffering. And it may not be the case for students who have borne some of the greatest forms of neglect and abuse in our current schools. Developing informed and sustainable hope that is not tied to pipe dreams requires work and education.
Stories offer a helpful tool for nurturing the habit of hope in schools. Stories, especially when presented under the guidance of teachers, help students to see how their worlds could be different. Stories of struggle and success develop children’s sensitivity to the lives of other people and provide examples of creative solutions that others have crafted to solve their social problems. When students see how others have worked to improve their lives, they are provided fodder for how they might try out ideas in their own situations.
But more than just reading the stories of others, students should be encouraged to create stories as well. Storytelling is an experience that allows students to practice imagination and to envision how the world might be made better. As I have explained before, “It also offers a counterforce to fatalistic statements children are likely to hear, including utterances such as, ‘that’s the way it’s always been and that’s the way it always will be’ or ‘we tried to fix it before but it didn’t work then and it won’t work now.’ Story construction allows students to oppose such paralyzing beliefs with evidence, even if it comes at the level of imagination.”68
Creating stories offers many benefits for the individual student, though collective storytelling offers even richer rewards. Working alongside others to understand their interpretation or experience of an event can help to forge collective truths about current life that account for multiple perspectives in a pragmatist spirit. Additionally, collective storytelling engages storytellers in a collaborative approach to envisioning how a situation should be resolved in the best interest of all parties and in ways involving complex social action. Finally, this practice builds coalitions of students who can draw upon each other’s strengths and achieve mutual empowerment. Altogether, these aspects of collective storytelling embody democratic practices of critical social thought and deliberation guided by empathy and geared toward coordinated social action.
Let me close this section by returning to my larger call for citizen responsibility to support public schools. Some may be wondering, in light of a long history of public school failures and shortcomings, do we have a responsibility to keep supporting something if it’s not working? Admittedly, these failures have been extensive, and many are simply unacceptable in a democracy that values inclusion, equal opportunity, and justice. Yet we also know that public schools have worked successfully in a variety of ways for many students and many communities. Moreover, the common school movement put faith in schools as the great equalizer of men. And while equality has not been achieved, we do know that public schools have the potential to provide one of the best pathways for climbing the social and economic ladder and to bring about better associated living for all.
My intention here is not to be naive about public schools and their failures or overly optimistic about their potential, but rather to emphasize, in the spirit of hope, that public schools are capable of being much better. I put forward an ideal of them here to guide us through and out of currently problematic situations. I also recognize that the discourse of fear and failure propagated by neoliberalism can be overwhelming, even paralyzing at times, making hope very difficult. All of this leads me to conclude that hope must be deeply connected to our responsibilities to public schools. It is our motivator and sustainer even in the face of past and current failures. As a habit, hope urges us to keep working to fulfill our responsibilities to our fellow citizens and to the democracy that unites us. It pushes us to act and to work toward meliorism, believing that things can and do improve through our sincere effort. Cultivating this habit in children may help them through challenging and fatalistic moments in the future and may give them the support necessary to sustain their efforts toward preserving and improving democracy.