Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Hope....Front and Center

I get depressed from time to time like almost everyone else. But in general, I am most definitely an optimist.

Despite all the human history I have read, most of which is quite dark, I am convinced that our true potential as a race is tremendous. I do not think it is possible that any nation, much less the great bulk of mankind, will achieve anything remotely Utopian in my lifetime, but I do believe that the world - in as little as a couple centuries - could be dramatically better than any one today really thinks is possible with respect to health, peace, education and the universal acceptance and true establishment of a core set of human rights.

Perhaps I'll write more on this in a later post as I have some pretty specific ideas about how this could happen and, more importantly, what our generation's role should be to that end... but right now, I want to focus on something we need in the meantime.


I am convinced that great things almost never happen when hope is totally absent, and it occurs to me that we could use a little more of it these days.

And I'm not talking about the vague and endlessly recycled warm and fuzzy rhetoric our politicians use.

I'm talking about concrete examples of meaningful progress and achievement in the face of overwhelming odds. I'm talking about actions and outcomes that defy our presumptions regarding what is realistic and what is ultimately possible.

We hear about these occasionally, but not nearly often enough. I guess the media doesn't seem to think they attract viewers as effectively as sex, scandal or bad news. Perhaps they don't...

In any case, I am going to make an effort to highlight examples a little more often here.

I am creating another permanent section on the left column of this blog. I am giving it the self explanatory title: "Hope". I'll do my best to add example to it from time to time.

I will give an introductory example here. I have changed the names and will not reveal the sources of this story, but it is entirely true.

It is about a public school teacher working in one of the poorest and most under performing schools in the United States. It shows what one capable individual can do - and the grand potential that could be realized if our nation's priorities and resources were aligned behind her.

Mary Jones taught 1st grade in inner city New Orleans. A Tulane
University study of her school district revealed that 85% of the children
in her school suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder due to witnessing
violence and crime in their communities. It was not uncommon for some of
her students to arrive to class without shoes and with empty
stomachs. Although most would probably take pity on these children,
many would probably also tragically assume that no school - and certainly no
individual teacher - could make substantial progress with them.

Indeed, 21 of her 25 first graders arrived with skills registering below

Mary did the following:

She set a clear and ambitious (undoubtedly characterized by some as naive) goals for every single student. Specifically, that every one of them would be able to read at a third grade level by the end of the year, write a paragraph with a main idea and
complete sentences and be able to add and subtract.

She assessed their progress constantly, and adjusted lesson plans accordingly. Her effort was substantial, but the process replicable.

She engaged every child's parents with home visits, phone calls and daily
personalized notes sent home with the students.

She did not receive any additional financial or material resources from her school, yet she made sure she had food for children that arrived hungry.

At the end of the year, 8 of her students - almost a full third - were reading on a third grade level. Another 40% were brought up to a second grade level from a pre-k level in a single academic year.

It was Mary's second year as a teacher. She was only 23 years old.

Stories like this make me realize that the progress we could attain one day as a society is truly beyond what we even dare to dream.

The admirable visionaries in our world today work towards the goal of the most disadvantaged students receiving a comparable education to the most fortunate. Doubtlessly, this is a worthy goal that we should pursue relentlessly...and it must be achieved before something greater can be attained.

Yet, reflect on what was accomplished with these students. A substantial fraction of them achieved more than two years of progress by our current standards. Their achievement was not simply incredible given their circumstances - it was extraordinary by any standard widely adopted today. Imagine what this teacher could have achieved with secure, properly clothed, properly fed children...

It makes me imagine a world in which 14 year-olds have the academic skills of today's high school graduates (the adequately prepared ones). It makes me think of a world in which people do not fear change as they do today because they were not simply infused with facts and routines (the process we call "education"today), they were also trained as independent critical thinkers - adaptable, open-minded problem solvers. This is entirely possible - it's precisely what the best colleges and universities achieve today.

These individuals would be able to independently seek answers to the cultural questions posed by an increasingly smaller and borderless world. These individuals would not be as susceptible to incompetent or manipulative leadership (whether it be tyrannical or democratically elected) or agenda driven media or individuals. These individuals would comprise an entirely new form of society.

But let me descend from the clouds for a bit.

I am not foreseeing or depicting a world in which every one can write a Pulitzer Prize winning essay or make a Nobel Prize caliber discovery. I am simply talking about a world in which people are not bound by prejudices or worldviews built in their youth - views that may very well have been accurate or useful when they were taught, but can serve in a rapidly changing world to hold that individual back for the majority of their life.

If we can remove that burden, then it will not just be our potential - but our actual achievement - that will truly be extraordinary.

1 comment:

Bryan said...

Great commentary Jared. It's good to hear from you again! Take care.