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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Policy & Politics Opinion

The Dangers of Apocalyptic Thinking

How to give students a sense of hope in spite of frightening real-world problems
By Rick Hess — March 21, 2023 5 min read
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Pedro Noguera, the dean of the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, and I have a podcast (Common Ground: Conversations on Schooling) in which we dig into our disagreements and seek to identify common ground on some of education’s thorniest questions. I thought readers might be interested in occasional snippets of those conversations. In today’s polarized debates, it can be all too easy to get sucked in apocalyptic thinking, especially when it comes to emotional disputes about schooling and our kids. Today, Pedro and I discuss what people miss when they view debates through an “all-or-nothing” lens and the importance of maintaining a sense of perspective.
—Rick

Pedro: I recently read a letter by a teacher in Aurora, Colorado, where, as you will recall, there was a terrible mass shooting at a movie theater a few years back. In the letter, she said that she’s finding it so hard to bring a sense of hope to her students. She said that her students are asking, “Why should we study now if the Earth is not going to be around in 10 years, if we’re running out of water in the Colorado River?” And she said when they ask questions like that, she thinks, “You’re right. I don’t know.” She was a young teacher who went into the profession with so much hope. I understand her despair.

Rick: You know, apocalyptic thinking rarely does anybody any good. I mean, the Great Awakening happens every century in some sense, right? We’ve had this secular, nonsectarian kind of great awakening over the last 10 or 20 years. But one of the things that we learn from the study of history is how easy it is, in times of revivalism, dislocation, or fear, to lose perspective. And look, I think climate change is something we need to take seriously. You and I have little kids, which makes something like climate change intensely personal. But at the same time, look, the Earth’s not ending in 10 years. It’s like those magazine covers from the 1970s when Time and Newsweek warned we were entering the “New Ice Age” or that the world was about to run out of oil or that we’d all be starving by the 1990s. Well, not so much. Catastrophic, apocalyptic thinking tends to freeze us up. There are real challenges, and we need to talk about them. We shouldn’t shy away from talking about children getting murdered at school, that a lunatic in Moscow has a bundle of atomic bombs, or that there are fascists in China working hard to intimidate us. The dangers are real. But we also have to teach our kids that we have tackled and solved crucial problems. All evidence suggests that race relations in America are profoundly better than they were 75 years ago. And when people deny that or say nothing’s changed, I think they’re fueling a false and enervating sense of hopelessness. The sacrifices made by so many over the decades have led to real change.

Pedro: I am a pragmatic optimist. I am realistic about the problems we face, and I think they are daunting. At the same time, I remain hopeful about our ability to solve problems in the future. But striking the balance between realism and optimism is difficult. I heard Archbishop Desmond Tutu talking a few years ago. As you know, despite being a fierce fighter of the Apartheid government, after the ANC took power, he became one of the toughest critics of the African National Congress because of corruption and other problems in South Africa. I heard him interviewed by a journalist, and in response to the question: Has the country made progress? He said, “Absolutely.” He said that there are now millions more kids in school than ever before. Millions more people have clean water and good housing. Anybody who says we haven’t made progress is not acknowledging reality. He followed up, “Do we have a long way to go? Absolutely. And do we need new leaders? Absolutely. But to not acknowledge the progress is to not acknowledge the work that’s been done.” So, if we take that perspective and acknowledge where progress has been achieved, for example, in reducing carbon emissions, then I can agree with you. I do think it’s important to acknowledge where we have made progress as a nation.

Rick: We talk a lot about income inequality. At the same time, somebody who makes $30,000 in the U.S. today has a quality of life, health care, life expectancy, communications, and access to things like transportation and food that would’ve been unimaginable to the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers even a century ago. So, I think we need to be careful not to preach a message of hopelessness. If you were to ask me: “Is there anybody alive 150 years ago that I would want to change places with, including the richest monarch in the world?,” I think my answer would be, “No one.” So I think we just also need to be careful that we don’t allow students to fixate on the troubling realities in a way that’s divorced from the complexity of our world or that overlooks its bounty.

Pedro: I agree with you to some extent on that. I think the same thinking could be applied to how we look at our current educational challenges. As a result of the disruptions caused by the pandemic, we went backward in reading and math. But, if we look closely at the most recent NAEP scores, it’s clear that we didn’t go back as far as we were 15 years ago. So, yeah, it was a setback. The pandemic was a setback in a lot of ways, but it was also an opportunity to reset how we do things. We’ve talked a lot about this before with respect to how we assess kids for ranking purposes. We really need to talk about how do we teach kids? How we get kids stimulated and challenged? How do we inspire them so that we can produce the next generation of scientists and writers who will have the courage and the wherewithal intellectually to address the problems we face—not with fear, but with a real sense of purpose about what can be done? That’s the reason why I believe education is so important. When we focus on education, we are inevitably focusing on the future. To me, education is the best resource we have for building a better future.

Rick: Yeah. I worry when I hear from educators who seem to have internalized a sense of hopelessness. In education, every year we get to start fresh. We get a bunch of 6-year-olds who we haven’t screwed up yet. I mean, it’s a pretty remarkable opportunity. We need to embrace that and cherish it.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. To hear the rest of the conversation, check out Episode 14 of Rick and Pedro’s Common Ground Podcast, “Reflections on Common Ground.”

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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