Federal Opinion

Staying Optimistic in Tough Times

By Ben Levin & Phi Delta Kappan — December 07, 2012 7 min read
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Shrinking budgets and unrelenting demands for higher achievement are threatening education, but education around the world is still better than ever.

I’m an optimistic person. Indeed, a former colleague whom I admired very much once referred to me as having a “relentless optimism,” which I did not entirely think was meant as a compliment.

Though I still tend to see the glass as half full, I have to admit that these days it’s getting harder to maintain a positive disposition on the future of public education or on the future of the world. So many things seem wrong—from toxic politics that alienate many people to the huge pressures on public services around the world caused by the financial crisis to the threats to the environment to, well, why go on? I’ll just depress you as well as me.

In education, the picture is also gloomy in many ways. Many countries have reduced education spending, laid off teachers, or increased class sizes. In other parts of the world, education remains in short supply with not enough teachers or schools for all children. In other places, macroeconomic pressures are increasing unemployment, hurting families, while also reducing social supports, such as child care or housing so children are bringing more stress to schools that have fewer resources to help them. Frankly, it is very hard to see how this strategy can possibly lead to greater prosperity. It seems as if we’re returning to the conventional wisdom on public services of the 1930s, which was a failure then. It is even less likely to be effective now.

Given all that, it’s easy to be gloomy.

And yet...Over the last few months, there are many positive developments in the world, including in education, especially if one takes a long view. (Much of what follows is from a wonderful column by Doug Saunders in the Toronto Globe and Mail (2009). So, as we head into the holiday season, it seemed worthwhile to share some reasons to celebrate and to renew our energy to continue to fight for the things we know are good for students and, indeed, for all people.

Let’s start with wars. Although wars continue to take place, the last 10 years have seen a marked decline in armed conflict by historical standards. According to Project Ploughshares, there are fewer armed conflicts with fewer deaths than at any time in recent history. Refugees are at the lowest level in 25 years. Africa, Latin America, and the former Soviet world have generally had reasonably good economic growth in the last decade. A decade ago, we feared that AIDS would kill huge numbers of people. Now, throughout much of the world, AIDS is under control, which is, in part, why we hear so much less about it in the news. And, Saunders suggests, we can also celebrate that sushi restaurants are increasing in numbers more rapidly than burger places.

Human Rights

On a more serious note, it’s worth reminding ourselves that the whole idea of human rights is relatively recent—perhaps a couple of centuries old. For most of human history, slavery was common and large numbers of people were considered the property of others, expendable, with no role in determining their own lives. That has changed dramatically, though not yet enough. Slavery, while not eradicated, is no longer condoned or seen as normal. Over the last hundred years, the status and situation of women has improved dramatically in many parts of the world (United Nations, 2011). It’s easy to forget that a century ago in most places women could not vote, own property, or have independent lives. Discrimination based on caste, skin color, or religion is no longer acceptable in most places. Most countries have curtailed or eliminated child labor and recognized that children also have rights and aren’t simply the property of their parents. Of course, abuses still occur in all these areas, much more than we might want, but situations once considered routine are now seen as problems. And within that frame, the idea of educating all children is less than 200 years old and over that time has made enormous progress. Even in rich countries, 50 years ago many disabled children were denied any kind of reasonable education—though, again, there are still too many children around the world who do not receive any or adequate schooling.

Since 1990, the global under-five mortality rate has dropped 41% and many countries have reduced their under-five mortality rate by more than 50% (UNICEF, 2001). Fewer infant deaths have been accompanied by fewer deaths of women in childbirth. Mass inoculation has dramatically reduced deaths from infectious diseases such as measles, polio, and smallpox (UNESCO, 2012)—though again, much more could and should be done. There have also been notable improvements in other health indicators, such as access to clean water, improved sanitation, and better access to contraception. More education for women has led to improvements in the situation of children and dramatic reductions in birth rates, including countries such as Turkey and Iran, providing a real possibility for the first time that the human population of the planet may stabilize or even start to decline by means other than wars or epidemics.

View From the Schoolhouse

Now, let’s return to education. Access to schooling has improved dramatically across the world, with 80 percent of the globe’s population considered to be literate as of 2002, the highest proportion by far in human history. This is not only the result of increased formal schooling, but also of many highly successful efforts in adult literacy. Within schools and in adult education, more girls and women are being educated. Secondary and postsecondary education have been expanded dramatically virtually everywhere (UNESCO, 2012).

We have also seen how entire countries can make very sharp improvements in education in a relatively short period of time. Fifty years ago, Korea and Singapore were poor countries with significant illiteracy. Now, they and others once similarly situated are highly educated and much wealthier. The same movement is visible in China, which has multiplied its university enrollment six-fold in about 10 years. (And by the way, the story here is not about China or India outcompeting the former industrial countries; rather, it’s about having more educated, well-paid people all over the world, leading to more prosperity for everyone.)

Even countries that were already doing reasonably well in educational terms have experienced sharp improvements over periods as short as a decade—Finland and Poland, for example. Chile has shown in recent years that with serious effort a country can improve education even among very poor populations. Overall in the world, education outcomes are better than they’ve ever been. The challenge is that expectations rise even faster than outcomes, so the gap never seems to get smaller. But that should not cause anyone to forget the very substantial progress that has been made.

What does all this mean for educators? My intent was to help readers feel a little less negative—or even a little more positive—about the state of the world and the state of education. This is important because negative feelings lead us to feel less able to act. Yet, action drives improvement. The improvements noted in this article didn’t happen by accident. They were the result of deliberate action and hard work by many, many people. Pretty much every positive development in human history, including all those mentioned in this column, came about because people worked tirelessly, often over long periods of time, and often when the prospects seemed poor, to bring about improvement. That has not changed; further improvement will still depend on people working together to do what’s needed.

Karl Marx wrote that people make their own history, but they don’t do it under conditions of their own choosing. The times today may not be auspicious, but they are the times we live in. Each of us has to do what we can, and just as importantly to support others who are doing good things. That is just what educators around the world do every day. We support children in fulfilling their dreams and talents.

So, as many readers head into the holiday season, my hope is that all of us will be able to retain our ideals and our optimism, and to continue to work and fight for better education and better lives for children and young people across the world. Educators have the privilege of being able to do that every day, and every bit of that good work matters!


  • Saunders D. (2009, December 26). The decade you missed. Toronto Globe and Mail.
  • United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. (2011). Progress of the world’s women: In pursuit of justice. New York, NY: United Nations.
  • UNESCO. (2012). Statistics show slow progress toward universal literacy. Paris, France: UNESCO Publishing.
  • UNICEF. (2001, September). Progress since the World Summit for Children: A statistical review. New York, NY: Author.
  • UNICEF. (2012). Levels and trends in child mortality. New York, NY: United Nations Children’s Fund.
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All articles published in Phi Delta Kappan are protected by copyright. For permission to use or reproduce Kappan articles, please e-mail kappan@pdkintl.org.


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