Can Teaching ‘Hope’ Revive Democracy?
A new book argues that hope is something that can be taught, and that it is the key to countering today’s heightened polarization.
The book is called “Learning How to Hope: Reviving Democracy through our Schools and Civil Society” (available free as an ebook from Oxford University Press), and it’s by Sarah Stitzlein, a professor of education and affiliate professor of philosophy at the University of Cincinnati.
For this week’s episode of the EdSurge Podcast, we sat down with Stitzlein to hear how her own attempts to teach hope have made an impact, and to get her advice on how to approach teaching civics during the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
Listen to this week’s podcast on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music or wherever you listen, or use the player below. Or read the partial transcript, which has been lightly edited for clarity.
EdSurge: I think at first glance, it might seem to some that encouraging hope is kind of obvious. You seem to argue though in your book that we have a kind of hope shortage in this country right now. What do you mean by that?
Stitzlein: We see our country struggling. We see democracy struggling. We see citizens struggling—burdened down with hyper-partisanship, folks struggling to work across the aisle,inability to get things done in D.C. We’re kind of struggling to find some common ground and work toward a common good, and we see individual citizens who are struggling and not feeling very hopeful in their personal lives. We certainly see things like the rise of opioid addiction, suicide rates, but also in their political lives.
The annual World Values Survey is given each year, and it shows us that citizens are increasingly feeling cynical rather than hopeful. They’re feeling that they can’t influence public policy, and they’re feeling more supportive of authoritarianism rather than democracy as a result. So while hope might seem like something we all know and want and celebrate, there’s a lot of evidence right now that we’re actually in a significant swing of despair.
It’s a presidential election year in the U.S., and so the title of your book made me think of the former President Barack Obama’s campaign, which encouraged hope on all those campaign posters. How do you situate what you’re talking about in relation to that message?
During the 2008 election we all remember those iconic images that were on T-shirts and posters of Barack Obama with the “hope” slogan underneath his face. It was during that time that Obama, of course, was writing about what he called having the audacity to hope. And I had been a longtime Republican. I’m born and raised in a farming family in the Midwest and I was in a rather new courtship with Democrats, if you will. And I kind of got swept up in that message of hope that was related to Obama. So a lot of us were kind of cheering for Obama from our couches and from home. And some of us actually took to the streets to work for Obama’s campaign or to do things to get behind his message. And I did just that.
On the day before the inauguration in 2009, I took to the streets of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where I was living at the time. Obama called for a day of public service. And I headed out to engage. I thought this was a great hopeful way to start a new presidency. But within a few months, like a lot of my peers, I found myself increasingly frustrated, back at home on the couch, naively kind of content to believe that things were going to get better, but not really doing anything to participate in that change. And so—like many of my peers on the left as well as some on the right today following President Trump’s election—I felt that a person might have had hope during election year, but we weren’t necessarily doing anything about it beyond casting a ballot.
So when we return to a new election in 2020, my book is trying to offer a way to show us how to act on hope, not just have it from our couches or from our ballot boxes, but to actually bring it into our everyday lives as citizens.
As we cover education we’ve written a lot about the notion of ‘grit,’ the idea popularized by Angela Duckworth about how perseverance can and should be taught in schools. But this is something, it seems like, you’re kind of at odds with a little bit. Why?
I am. Certainly I want to celebrate the kind of tenacity and perseverance that’s a part of grit. That’s certainly a good personal character trait to have. But I want to move beyond it because grit opens up a whole host of problems. [For one,] it’s seen as this kind of individualist trait, this “pick yourself up by the bootstraps mentality,” where we almost find ourselves celebrating individuals who are facing adversity without recognizing the fact that we should be working to change the status of adversity so that we’re overcoming and improving our surroundings rather than to celebrating those who are able to work hard and persevere within them.
And so my alternative in calling for hope is really an effort to move us past looking at how individuals sustain themselves in difficult and challenging situations to [focusing on] how can we work together as citizens to improve the overall situation so folks don’t have to endure difficult struggles related to things like racism, sexism, poverty, et cetera.
In your book you argue that hope is something that can be taught. What does it look like to teach hope?
I conceive of hope as a kind of habit. It’s a habit that we can develop over time that can be nurtured, and in that way it’s something we can do in schools or in civil organizations, clubs and community groups, churches, et cetera. These are all spaces where we can nurture this proclivity.
And so if that habit of hope is a proclivity to want to change and improve the world for oneself and often for other people, that’s something we can learn in schools through the way that we work together in inquiry and deliberation, but also through the content that we learned, the way that we learned to use history and storytelling and imagination and creativity in our schools.
You teach a class at your university called Save Our Schools about problems in the K-12 system and how to fix them. What’s that class like?
That was my favorite class to teach. Save Our Schools is a course that is introducing students—some are pre-service teachers, but others are engineers, biologists and across the spectrum—who come to tackle some of the problems that we’re facing in K-12 education right now. And so we spend the course introducing them to those problems, but orienting the entire course around what I see as the key civic question and that is, “What should we do?”
This is a question that really gets at the pragmatists’ spirit of hope, that kind of collective orientation toward possibility, toward change and toward working together. So I start the course by getting my students out in the community. I put them in the role of a listener so they can learn from teachers and schools and nonprofits and others working on education issues in the community to figure out what’s going on, what’s working, what’s not, what’s been tried, what should we try. And then back in the classroom, I’m arming the students with historical understanding, helping them understand how we’ve come to the struggles we are facing today in our schools. I give them data and scientific studies and research to show them what’s been happening, what’s led to where we are now, and then I’m guiding them through inquiry and through problem solving so that they can come up with better solutions
I’d get them out in the community—volunteering with local nonprofits to see how folks outside of physical school spaces are working on education issues. And then I develop the kind of skills politically that I think are really important to nurturing a spirit of hope in our citizen lives. For example, they work on a project where they write letters to the editor and here they’re working to develop their skills of argumentation and political descent and storytelling. You know, how could schools be better, so that they can encourage others to get on board with their plans for change and improvement in schools.
And then finally, the course closes with the opportunity for them to present their ideas for improving and changing our K-12 schools. I bring in a panel of state legislators who talk with the students about next steps for implementing their ideas, for making policies about them. I’m really pleased to share that there’s been some significant impact from that course, shaping some of the policies and practices that we have in our K-12 schools in Ohio.
But it seems like by having a class so steeped in political activism, I’m sure you had students of varying political stripes in the class. And one person’s hope for a policy might be the nightmare of another person. How do you manage that and keep people from being frustrated with each other’s views?
That’s one of the biggest challenges that we face right now as educators, is how to find that common ground and how to work across those differences. But one of the skills that students need, and this could be K-12 students as well as university students right now, is to have those kinds of values-clarifying conversations, to talk about why one feels so committed to a certain view or value or a particular hope for our country. And then to figure out how we negotiate and navigate that space in between two opposing or differing views.
I talk a lot with the students about what does it mean to form common ground together. Not necessarily find a common ground, but actually work to build it between us. You know, what can we agree upon. And what is it that’s been a lasting, long-standing part of democracy that we can return to, ideas like equality and justice and opportunity. Things that folks from different political backgrounds can all get on board with. But it’s hard work. It takes a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of careful conversations in the classroom.
What do you think then is the biggest obstacle to this advice you’re giving in your book, about encouraging hope in classroom settings?
I’d say two major obstacles. One is related to trust. The kind of work that I’m talking about doing in political and civic life requires trusting in others, especially those who may be different from ourselves, whether that’s in political views or demographic background. And that can be hard, increasingly, in a hyper-partisan kind of environment. We see folks driving further and further apart. And with that comes this increasing mistrust of others. Believing others might be out for their own personal gain or out to harm us in some way. And so it puts a lot of onus on educators to create spaces where we can build trust and overcome some of those factors that are working against trust in society.
The second part is that my own background I think may give a limited take on the kind of despair that is deep and difficult to overcome with a hopeful vision of political life. The kind of despair that comes out of enduring long-standing systematic racism, for example. Some leading scholars of color today have turned, instead of to something like hope, to argue for disengagement from political life in the way that I’m describing it. More of kind of a self-protection, turning to others like themselves to create spaces of community and protection. Whereas I’m calling for this kind of continued ongoing work. This effort to keep working across boundaries of difference. Those who have endured more of struggles personally, some of them are turning to opposite things, and I think I need to wrestle with that a bit more as I think about how my calls to hope may impact particular individuals, especially those of color and coming from some of our more impoverished communities in the United States.