Social Studies Commentary

Hope and Possibility

By Richard C. Harwood — February 07, 2006 7 min read

Listen carefully and you can hear the dominant narrative of our times: We are a nation divided between red states and blue states, churchgoers and non-churchgoers, as well as urban and suburban and rural voters.

But in conversations I have held with Americans over the past 15 years about their relationship to politics, public life, and to each other, it is clear that this conventional wisdom is wrong—and dangerously misleading. Rather, our dilemma is that people have retreated altogether from politics and public life into close-knit circles of family and friends. They have thrown up their hands in dismay; they have walked away and turned inward.

—Dave Cutler


This retreat is lethal for public education. How will we act in the name of all children and in all communities, if so many of us have turned away?

There are many reasons for people’s retreat. Here are two key drivers: The first is that when people look out into public life and politics, they do not see their reality reflected. This leaves people with the feeling that they are on their own, without the confidence that their concerns will be understood or addressed.

The second reason is even more troubling and potentially harmful: the actual distortion of people’s reality. Today, people believe that their concerns and hopes are being mercilessly abused and mangled in the daily iterations of public life and politics. The sources of such manipulation are political leaders who are more interested in their own personal interests than the common interest; news media that are more concerned with hyping and sensationalizing the news than illuminating the tough issues we collectively must face; and even community, civic, and neighborhood leaders who are obsessed with protecting their own turf and shrinking budgets, jockeying to claim credit for good deeds.

Our task is to forgo engaging people as isolated consumers and to reinstill a sense of purpose and meaning in our public affairs.

People are unable to see, hear, and feel themselves in the public square, and much of what they do experience seems unreal. This is a circumstance, we must realize, that robs people of the vital sense of coherence that we, as human beings, so urgently seek—especially in times of significant change. A sense of possibility and hope is now missing from our public affairs.

But there is more. At every turn, it seems that we Americans—that is, each of us as individuals—have taken on the title of the “almighty consumer,” expecting to get what we want, when we want it, at the highest quality and the lowest cost. It can seem at times that we hold limitless expectations, and that we’re on constant high alert, ready to complain the moment we perceive our desires not being fulfilled.

And yet, how is it that we will cultivate the collective understanding and will so necessary to address public education if so many of us have retreated and think of ourselves as isolated consumers freelancing through society? What happens when our own child receives an adequate education while other children do not? Will we care enough to act? How much and in what ways will we contribute to improving conditions for everyone?

When I have asked people in different communities to give me a motto for the nation, one person responded by saying, “I’ve got mine and to heck with you.” Another individual said, “I’m for me and you’re for you.” And a third person gave me this motto: “I’m for me and you’re for me!”

Unfortunately, those of us concerned with public education often reinforce people’s vision of themselves as footloose consumers. We employ customer-service models in our work, asking people, “What can the schools do to improve?” or “What can we do for you?” Too often we fail to ask people to consider the whole of the community; and too often public discourse focuses on people’s demands and complaints and claims, rather than on identifying common aspirations and tapping into people’s sense of obligation to one another.

What’s more, too many of us pursue advocacy approaches—on vouchers, school bonds, small-schools initiatives, parent involvement, and other issues—that employ the same divisive tactics people see coming from their political leaders, all the while masquerading as “civic engagement.” I couldn’t begin to recount how many times people have described to me their efforts to “engage” Americans on public education that add up to nothing more than selling people on a position, subtly striking fear in people’s hearts, and figuring out how to beat back their opponents.

We must see that such tactics merely amplify and deepen the negative conditions of politics and public life. We must see that these efforts are in part at the root of what drives people from the public square.

If you believe, as I do, that we must find better ways to foster the collective will and action among people to support sound public schools for all children, then we must pursue together an alternative path for politics and public life. Three building blocks must, I believe, be at the heart of all efforts to create such change.

First, we must square with the reality of people’s lives. This means understanding why people have retreated and under what conditions they will step forward.

Second, we must tap into people’s desire to be part of something larger than themselves. Our task is to forgo engaging people as isolated consumers and to reinstill a sense of purpose and meaning in our public affairs. Otherwise, we will be unable to bring people together to address our common concerns.

We must make a conscious choice about the path we will choose when it comes to politics and public life.

Third, we must affirm our commitment to hope. But meeting this challenge requires that we make a clear distinction between false hope and authentic hope. People do not want to endure more disappointment.

These are the building blocks I outline in a new book, Hope Unraveled, for which I recently completed a 13-city book tour. My conversations with people during that time reflect a deep national hunger to find an alternative path for politics and public life. I have seen such an alternative approach work in my own organization’s efforts to reconnect communities and schools over the past 10 years.

At the heart of these initiatives is a community agreement, what I call a covenant, outlining what schools and the community must do to make progress. A community strikes this covenant through a series of open meetings and highly focused community conversations that explore people’s aspirations for their schools and community, and wrestle with the underlying issues, values, and trade-offs necessary for sustainable action. In each community, I have found that when the conditions are right people will step forward, and change can happen—though perhaps not always as fast as we might hope.

• People in Greenville, S.C., came together to cross boundaries of race, newcomers and old-timers, churchgoers and non-churchgoers, and began to shift the tone and change the conditions of community debate and engagement on public schools.

• People in more than a dozen communities across Ohio worked through thorny small-schools and building-facility issues; these efforts were often led by unlikely community groups, such as a regional transit authority.

• People in Mobile County, Ala., broke through years of stalemate on public schools and sparked changes in the norms of community discussion and in the relationship between the community and the school district.

• People in Orange County, Fla., home to Orlando, are now coming together to jump-start a sense of ownership of their public schools. At issue: how to engage people who seem to have retreated.

No single initiative is a magic bullet. That’s part of any reality we must also know and heed. And what works in one community may not be right for another.

But what is clear is that we must make a conscious choice about the path we will choose when it comes to politics and public life. Here are three questions to help us make that choice and to guide our efforts:

If each of us takes our part of the challenge—that part which is near to us and over which we have some control—then change is possible.

1. Will we engage people on public education and community change around a notion of the public good, or only their own good?

2. Will we see people as citizens, wanting to make their connection with others, or simply as freelancing consumers?

3. Will we pursue authentic hope, or will we rely on the tactics and techniques of false hope?

People often say to me that the challenge of reversing people’s retreat from public life can feel overwhelming. My response to them is the following: If each of us believes that we alone can reverse this trend, then we will be overwhelmed. But if each of us takes our part of the challenge—that part which is near to us and over which we have some control—then change is possible.

We must know as we move ahead that the change we seek will only come over time. It’s a cliché to say we must be patient; it’s something else entirely to say that we must run as fast as we can and still know that it is only through the force of our collective actions that change will ever take place.

If we are to ensure that all children are to receive the public education they deserve, we must step forward and pursue an alternative path for public life and politics—one guided by a genuine sense of possibility and hope.

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