As an educator, I am charged with ensuring our students 1) know what they need to know to be ready for their next stage of life and 2) have developed habits and attitudes that will help them be successful members of our society. Everything our schools do encompasses these two goals. We want to make sure our students are ready to truly impact the community and nation in which they reside. Throughout my years in education, I’ve wondered exactly what that means. Specifically, what type of nation can the class of 2019 expect to find?
Numerous recent polls have found that approximately 35% of Americans are satisfied the way things are going in our country. This, in and of itself, is not that unusual. Since 1971 (the first year that question was asked by a polling firm), surveys have often found a solid majority of Americans were not happy with the direction of their country. More interesting to me, is whether or not we believe that things will get better.
As a recovering history teacher, I am especially mindful of where our nation comes from. We have been through difficult times. We have endured a number of wars, the Great Depression, the Red Scare, race riots, 9/11 and many other harrowing experiences. All nations face challenges; what has set us apart, however, is our unflinching optimism. We have been motivated by revolutionary ideas such as God-given rights, Manifest Destiny, the responsible use of power, universal suffrage and even moon shots. While we certainly have not always been true to the ideals, we have at least had ideals. We must not lose the very optimism that allowed us to strive for the ideal.
This is no small thing. One could argue that optimism has been our nation’s defining characteristic. The French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, after visiting the United States in the mid-1800s, remarked that Americans “have all a lively faith in the perfectibility of man … They all consider society as a body in a state of improvement.” Many of us recall President Kennedy’s challenge. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.” Whether it’s a moon shot, D-Day or the Revolutionary War itself, we have always been a nation that does “hard things” because we believe we can make tomorrow better than today. Yet a recent Pew Research Center poll found that a majority of Americans is pessimistic about such key concepts as living standards, income gaps, career opportunities and political divisions. Other recent polls have documented this same lack of confidence in ourselves.
Were I once again a teacher in a Current World Problems class, I would attempt to help my students understand that in this country the power for positive change truly resides in the hands of the people—as long as we believe and act as if it does. We need not worry about our nation because our problems have become too big; if we feel we need to worry, perhaps it is because we have become so small. Our Constitution, our natural resources and our past successes all indicate that our potential is sufficient to the tasks ahead. It is only our present-day individual and national drive and character that are in doubt.
As a people, do we have the “intestinal fortitude” to recognize that any doubt about our nation’s future is a reflection of our own fears, rather the reality of the depth of our historical, institutional and natural resources? There is a line in the science fiction movie “The Abyss” that seems applicable. In the movie, two characters have a choice to make, and they must decide whether to make that choice based on fear or optimism. Speaking to Bud about of one of the characters who is fearful, Lindsey says he “looks and he sees Russians, he sees hate and fear. Bud, you have to look with better eyes than that.” Instead of expecting the worst, we must help our young people look with better eyes, believe in their own potential and be optimistic about their futures. The only thing that limits them (and us) is our vision and commitment to that vision.