Bad and Better at the Same Time

Cultivate evidence-based optimism and a solution-focused mindset.

Posted May 14, 2019

'Zoe Weil'
Source: 'Zoe Weil'

On May 3, I gave some remarks at my alma mater about educating a generation of solutionaries.

I stressed that we can solve the problems we face in the world if we transform our education system and provide students with the skills to successfully research, understand, and systemically respond to real-world challenges.

Afterward, the mother of a child at the school came up to me and asked, “Do you really think there’s hope for the world?”

I responded that I did.

I also admitted that there are plenty of times when I fear that the future will be bleak. But when those dark clouds descend, I remind myself how far we’ve come.

In their book Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World, Hans, Ola, and Anna Rosling offer carefully researched statistics, thinking tools, and approaches to help people access and assess facts about our world.

The Roslings provide a fuller picture of the state of the world than we’re used to finding in the news or through social media. They describe improved and improving societies. Their book stands in contrast to the doom and gloom view that often predominates, especially among those (and I count myself among them) who are working to build a more just, healthy, and humane future.

It’s not surprising that bad news eclipses good. Not only is the aphorism, “If it bleeds it leads” true in the media, but there are also serious — indeed, potentially catastrophic — problems that threaten people, nonhuman animals, and the ecosystems that sustain life.

That said, we have a tendency to notice what’s awful now, rather than how much more awful things used to be.

For example, when I was born it was illegal in many states for people of different races to marry, and then, when I was six years old, the U.S. Supreme Court made all such laws unconstitutional.

When I was born there was no Clean Air Act or Clean Water Act, and then in the 1970s these laws were passed by the U.S. Congress, and the air and water in the U.S. are now cleaner than when I was a child.

When I was born, more than half of the world lived in extreme poverty; today about 11% of people do.

When I was born, only a small percentage of people seemed to care about the plight of animals, and now, according to a Gallup poll, the majority of Americans (62% of those polled) believe animals deserve protection and should have rights.

Racism, pollution, poverty, and animal cruelty are still serious problems, but progress has been made in addressing them.

Things can be bad and better at the same time.

Not everything is improving, of course. Climate change is becoming a climate crisis. We may be saving some megafauna from the brink of extinction through concerted efforts, but we are currently in the midst of mass extinction, losing more species every year than we can even count, despite the U.S. Endangered Species Act (another law passed when I was a child).

With that said, if we don’t recognize that things can be bad and better simultaneously, we may unintentionally diminish the likelihood of individually and collectively solving the problems we face.

Educators who become pessimistic or hopeless present an even graver danger. By conveying a misleading and negative understanding of reality, they may inadvertently shape the thinking, worldview, and emotions of their students, in a way that leaves children feeling indifferent, powerless, and/or without hope.

Young people need to understand that overall, things are better than they were, and we can make them better yet. If they don’t understand this truth, they may be disinclined to embrace their role as solutionaries.

How might we teach students that things can be bad and better at the same time?

After reading Factfulness during his graduate work at the Institute for Humane Education, educator and sports fan, Nate Nolting, created the short animated video below analyzing gender inequality in sports and society, as highlighted by the impassioned and powerful commentary of Notre Dame’s women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw, an issue that's been in the news recently.

Through his video, Nate helps his viewers understand evidence-based optimism and employ careful critical thinking in order to better recognize trends and progress. He deconstructs the thinking that leads us to see society more negatively than may be warranted and offers ways to avoid succumbing to inaccurate biases.

Nate’s video is a learning tool that we can use for ourselves, as well as a teaching tool that educators can use with their students. Coupled with these other media for context — Around the Horn, Where are the Women? and An Open Letter About Female Coaches — students can learn to identify faulty thinking traps and build their critical and strategic thinking skills.

Evidence-based optimism is an important habit of mind to cultivate, because legitimate optimism fuels solutionary action, which in turn leads to a healthier and more humane future — a win for the emotional health of individuals and a win for the world.