Should We Be Teaching Optimism?
Guest Post by Douglas W. Green, EdD
Book: Teaching Isn't Rocket Science, It's Way More Complex: What's Wrong With Education and How to Fix Some of It
Unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so. —Noam Chomsky
In his book Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think, Hans Rosling poses 13 questions about how the world is doing. They include questions about topics like poverty, life expectancy, crime, and warfare. Here is the link to those questions. He has given this test to educated people around the world and has found that they usually do worse than chance.
The answers are usually the most positive of the choices available. For example, when he asks what has happened to the percentage of people living in extreme poverty in the last 20 years, people are more likely to say that it has doubled than say it has been cut in half. In other words, they tend to give the most pessimistic answer when the optimistic answer is the correct one. Extreme poverty has been cut in half in the last 20 years.
Other authors are finding the same generally pessimistic outlook among educated people who keep up with current affairs. Steven Pinker makes this same point in his new book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018) as does Louis Rossetto in the October 2018 issue of Wired Magazine.
Why Are We So Pessimistic?
Now that we have discovered the same phenomena from several angles, it's time to try to explain it. It's clear to me that the culprit is the news media. According to Pinker, The New York Times got steadily more morose from the early 1960s to the early 1970s, lightened up a bit in the 1980s and 1990s, and then sank into a progressively worse mood in the first decade of the new century. As a daily reader of The New York Times, it seems like the news has only gotten more negative since the election of 2016, and that negative opinions are no longer confined to the opinion pages.
As someone who takes in news from news outlets with both liberal and conservative biases, I am convinced that the general negative nature of reporting and opinion has caused the public to be far more pessimistic about the future than the facts would support.
Pinker also tells us that "the nature of news is likely to distort people's view of the world because of a mental bug that the psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman called the availability heuristic. "People estimate the probability of an event or the frequency of a kind of thing by the ease with which instances come to mind." It seems that rather than being informed by the news, we are increasingly miscalibrated by it. This is exacerbated by the fact that most people only listen to news they agree with.
The term "if it bleeds, it leads" was used by journalist Eric Pooley. What he meant is that news outlets have a tendency to start their shows with sensational stories that will draw viewers in. They fear that if they don't, their audience will gravitate to another outlet that does so.
What Can Educators Do?
This seems easy enough. First, we need to make sure that our students realize what news outlets are doing and that the level of negativity does not represent what's going on in the world as a whole. I would also consider giving Rosling's quiz to students in middle school and high school so they can see that when it comes to important things, the world is getting better.
As for myself, I find that I have cut back on my news consumption and increased my consumption of history, documentary, travel, food, and nature shows. An hour of news in the morning over breakfast and a quick look at headlines and a few stories in one liberal and one conservative paper should be enough. There is no way you are going to miss anything important with that approach. With cable channels that run news around the clock, it's easy to get sucked into listening to endless talking-head pundits who think they know what is going to happen when their guesses are not likely to be much better than chance.
As for bias, you should teach students about it and show examples. It shouldn't be difficult to find left and right wing takes on the same story. Try the New York Post (right) and The New York Times (left). Students should look for bias in the news so they can spot it. Thanks to President Trump, it's easy to tell where someone's bias is. Liberal outlets bash him about 90% of the time while conservative outlets do not. As far as I can tell, neither side has cornered the market on fake news. Note that both Rosling and Pinker are liberals.
Optimistic people, like myself, always try to see the bright side of any situation. There is a lot of emphasis in education about letting students fail and supporting them as they move on and learn from their failings. Seeing failure as useful should help one be more optimistic.
There is also research that shows how being optimistic is better for your health, and if it's better for your health, it's better for your longevity. It may be possible to be too optimistic for one's own good. This is usually called denial. Bad things happen, so put all the positive spin you want on a situation but don't deny the bad aspects.
The peace researcher John Galtung pointed out that if a newspaper came out once every 50 years, it would not report half a century of celebrity gossip and political scandals. So tell students to try to compile their own facts and make their own opinions. The idea is to teach children how to think, not what to think, and see if you can intentionally help your students, your children, and yourself be more optimistic.
How can we all work at being more optimistic? Please share
Evaluating Conversations Blog. If It Bleeds It Leads, available online at http://bit.ly/2H7d2dS.
Harvard Health Publishing. Optimism and your health, May 2008, available online at http://bit.ly/2RPD1ec.
Heid, Markham: Is It Bad for You to Read the News Constantly? Time Magazine Online, January 31, 2018, available online at http://bit.ly/2RvDKAY
Pinker, Steven (2018). Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, Viking Books: New York, NY.
Pinker, Steven. The media exaggerates negative news. This distortion has consequences, The Guardian, February 17, 2018, available online at http://bit.ly/2H5IitC
Rosling, Hans (2018). Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think, Flatiron Books: New York, NY.
Rosling, Hans. Hans Rosling's Factfulness Test From His New Book | Questions & Answers, Alex Denne's Website, January 12, 2019, available online at http://bit.ly/2HlSYor.
Rossetto, Louis, Fight the Dour, Wired Magazine, October 2018, pp. 26-27.
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