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Language and Hope

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Bard College President Leon Botstein has written a hopeful book about American education that examines in detail both the nostalgia with which the public views the enterprise--making today's schools seem much worse, Mr. Botstein says, than they actually are--and the cultural pessimism that is, in his view, "the primary obstacle facing any sustained progress" in reform. In Jefferson's Children: Education and the Promise of American Culture, Mr. Botstein offers a provocative critique and intriguing prescriptions for K-12 educators, such as his contention that the American high school is obsolete and his suggestions for alternatives to the current school structure. But his most thought-provoking passages may well be those in which he traces the links between our culture, politics, and language and the way we approach education as a society. The following excerpted passages illustrate:

The way we use language does tell us a great deal, even indirectly, about our views on political matters. Nowhere is this fact clearer than in the case of the use of the word hopefully. And in the case of hopefully, a concern about the acceptance of a previously incorrect use is not misplaced.

Contemporary usage has given hopefully a new role. We say, "Hopefully, we will make a profit," or "Hopefully, Congress will pass that bill," or "Hopefully, the concert will not be too long," or "Hopefully, it will be a nice day and I will feel better." In all of these cases what, in the past, ought to have been said is "I hope" instead of "hopefully." But even in this new use of hopefully, the speaker is communicating his or her state of mind--the expression of hope--with regard to some future occurrence.

The significance of the popularity of this use of the word hopefully is more than a matter of taste or lapse in good manners. Even the most educated among us have become accustomed to a circumlocution, a way of expressing hope without identifying ourselves as the agent of that hope or as a responsible party capable of influencing or realizing the desired outcome. Insofar as grammar and common usage are reflections of the way we think and play the game of life with language, the change from "I hope" to "hopefully" is a sign of the disavowal of responsibility. ...

The use of hopefully to which we have now become accustomed is a sign of the extent to which we have lost hope and live in a culture of pessimism. We no longer feel comfortable putting ourselves on the line. We talk about events in our lives and around them indiscriminately as if they are not in our control. We are not inclined to take responsibility. Most of all, we are increasingly disinclined to be found out as individuals who sustain hope, as though we might be marked as fools or children.

Our current use of language suggests that we live in an age of greater hopelessness than in the past, when the usage that is now pervasive was understood as simply wrong. No doubt we would like things to get better, but we place more distance in our speech from the idea and its realization. We depersonalize hope and act, in speech, as if we ourselves are not in charge. The dramatic role industry and technology have played in the development of ourselves as individuals has exacerbated the plausibility of the new use of hopefully. We sense that our work is less dependent on us as individuals and less significant. We feel less in control in the face of technology that we do not command or understand and that yet seems to control our lives. The scale of government and society and the massive power of financial and commercial institutions dwarf us and leave us with little sense of our own capacity to assume responsibility.

The failure to assume personal responsibility, no matter how apparently reasonable, is a depressing and even dangerous way to think and act in a democratic culture that thrives on the free activity of individuals. Furthermore, it is devastating to the children of that culture. In an atmosphere of hopelessness, in which individuals are not inclined to express hope or to take on the responsibility to make things better, how do we expect children to behave and think? No other generation of children in the history of this country has suffered as much under the burden of such sustained adult hopelessness.

For a child starting in preschool at the age of 3 or 4 to be enthusiastic about going to school and learning requires that the child put a great deal of faith in the process of learning and schooling. On some level, the child must hope. For that child to sustain that attitude for 12 or more years, the surrounding culture must cultivate a parallel sense of hope. We ask children to spend at least 12 years working nearly every day for rewards that the adult population promises are out there for them. In our language (and in other ways as well) we signal a different, if not contradictory, message. ...

Categorical denials that something can be done, particularly in politics and culture, cannot carry the prestige of scientific claims, and even scientific claims invite contradiction and replacement. The theories and propositions of science constantly await correction, criticism, and disproof. It is certainly our obligation to try to improve education and culture, a task for which there is no firm basis to consider it implausible. Since we are dealing with children and new generations, we can find reasons for hope. We then might voluntarily hear again that the way we use hopefully is wrong and philosophically out of tune, so to speak. If our children hear in our everyday language a willingness to take responsibility for the world they must grow up in by the way we express hope, then the crucial first step in improving our schools and making progress in our daily lives will have been taken.

Afinal note: The connection between hope and education is not arbitrary. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein observed that hope is not an emotion. In the context of thinking about the differences between animals and humans, he came upon the notion that one really could not describe animals as having the capacity to hope, or express hope. Hope was different from an emotion such as anger or joy. Wittgenstein came to the conclusion that the possession of a language was a precondition for any reasonable capacity to hope. If one were to put that insight in a somewhat different form, one might be inclined to say that if we are to live with any degree of hope, we must first be able to talk and think. In other words, education is a precondition of hope. Without the command of language--and, by inference, thought, ideas, and knowledge--hope disappears or becomes meaningless. Yet, when everything else fails, we are subjected constantly by politicians, religious leaders, and pundits of all types to an appeal to mere "hope."

The consequence of this insight into the nature and meaning of hope is to place education even more into the center as a priority for this country. At stake are not only economic development, social cohesion and stability, and the health of our national consciousness and political system. Our sense of individual self-worth and the sacred charter of life hang in the balance. Hope for ourselves, our children, and our world is contingent on education. Survival depends on education, as does freedom. The time has come to set pessimism aside and create an educational system in this country adequate to enable future Americans to hope, and with that hope, to take responsibility for themselves and the well-being of our society and culture.

From the book Jefferson's Children: Education and the Promise of American Culture, copyright 1997 by Leon Botstein. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc.

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