When I was about twenty, a girlfriend asked me if I was a pessimist or an optimist. Being that I was sensitive and a little melodramatic, I had recently decided that wisdom’s highest expression was a kind of informed despair. Despite this, I thought for a moment and replied, “I’m an optimist.” If I were a pessimist, I don’t think I’d ever get anything done. I have a friend who worked very hard a number of years ago to transform education. He succeeded on a very small scale, but obviously things in the classroom still remain essentially as they were 150 years ago. Whenever he talks about education now, his ideas are always forward-looking and refreshing, but it is unlikely he will ever be a part of changing education because he has become a pessimist. People, he has come to believe, are rotten and stupid and narrow and hopeless – not all of them, but somewhere in the last twenty years the scales were tipped for the worse.
I make a point not to talk to him about education now. I think of him whenever I listen to people like James Bach or Sir Ken Robinson discuss how we learn. Much of what these men are saying now my friend has been saying since the 60’s, but these two men, and many other men and women like them, are optimistic. Which is to say they remain committed to the idea that humanity can—and indeed must—evolve. Change may be slow, but it is inevitable, and it is never corrosive, at least not in the long run.
I’ve heard it said that pessimism is a sign of intelligence. This may be so, but it is only a sign of intelligence unmoored from wisdom. Wisdom is always an expression of life’s unshakable balance. Do not argue for the balance; as with the balance you find on a tightrope, you can only feel it—there is no evidence for this balance beyond you standing tall. Pessimism and despair are nothing more than the mind’s cry for help. Life, whether we complain about it or not, moves ever forward. The optimist accepts this and assumes the future is some place he’d like to be, since that is where he is headed; the pessimist has decided that any future his mind cannot predict is not a future he wants any part of.