OptimismJuly 30, 2009
“And I expect the future of humanity or the human animal, the human species, to be in ethical and political respects, much like the past. There’ll be new inventions, new knowledge … but basically the future will be like the past, history will go on. Oddly enough, when I tell people like that, they say, ‘You mean we’re all doomed?’ I say, initially I became rather puzzled by it, what I’m saying is that we carry on coping the way we did in the past.’ [and they say] ‘Do you mean we’re all doomed?’”
From John Gray in a radio interview here http://www.abc.net.au/rn/philosopherszone/stories/2008/2284016.htm
“My question is, does anyone actually do much work trying to identify the causes of bad behaviour in individuals and sort of the problems rather than just implementing the sanction. Do you feel you actually understand behaviour management or do you simply understand sanctions. … Your blog [i.e. this one] seems a little depressing and negative at times. Maybe this represents your experiences of dealing with pupil behaviour.”
From “busy_little_bee” on the TES forum here http://community.tes.co.uk/forums/t/336148.aspx
It should be easy to tell the optimists from the pessimists. Optimists believe things will get better, pessimists believe they will get worse. By this definition I am an optimist. I write this blog not to say “we are all doomed”, but to say “this must stop” and to encourage others to help stop it. I am angry, not depressed, and my mood is only ever as bleak as the reality around me and I am easily cheered up by the opportunity to change that reality. The belief that currently things are simply not good enough is an optimistic belief. Even the belief that our next education initiative (whatever it may be) is doomed by its own inherent stupidity is not pessimism when it is accompanied by the belief that improvement can be brought about if we were to stop wasting time on what is stupid.
This is why it never ceases to amaze me to be accused of any type of negativity. This happens with people on the internet who are shocked that anybody could challenge the latest bright idea, or that efforts to “reform” badly behaved children could be anything other than a complete success. It happens with students who cannot believe that I expect them to work, learn and behave in my lessons and am not satisfied with only getting one or two of the three. It has happened with people in the schools I work with who think that is unreasonable to be upset by SMT dishonesty or incompetence, or by the fact that we systematically fail children. From their point of view optimism is how they describe complacency. It is positive to think that things are already good enough. A problem is only a problem if we identify it as such. If you have a picture in your mind of just how good schools could be; just how satisfying our working lives could be; just how much of a difference teachers can make, then you are a cause of unhappiness. How dare you get teachers to think about their working conditions! How dare you get people to think that children, particularly working class children, could learn or behave! How dare you think that we could do better than APP or SEAL or any other imposed initiative! How dare you think!
There is only one part of education that I am not optimistic about. I am not optimistic about attempts to perfect human nature. The moment I know that a scheme, or an aim, is based on the idea that students will be changed on the inside, then I know that we are wasting our time. The moment that education is meant to be a replacement for religion; when it is to tamper in the stuff of people’s souls; when it is meant to result in some secular form of salvation, then I do feel dread. When we are meant to be changing our students from underclass to Übermenschen by talking to them, whether this is through therapy or philosophy, then I do despair. But, like John Gray, even here I am not claiming that we are doomed. What I am claiming is that the people of the future will be much like the people of the past and that we need to cope with that. If that is too much of a nightmare to face, if it is unthinkable that our pupils will be human beings in a world like our own rather than inhuman citizens of a utopia, then I guess I could be accused of pessimism. But then I ask: why can’t the Utopians go away and set up their Utopia somewhere far away from me? Why do they have to commandeer my classroom as part of their doomed project? If the future is to be so inhumanly wonderful why do we have to be conscripted into it? Why is my scepticism a form of pessimism, when I am resolutely optimistic about how good the future can be so long as we stop trying to build it on the sand of a denial of human nature?