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Philosopher of education Sarah Stitzlein on the power of pragmatist hope

In 2016, psychologist Angela Duckworth published the book Grit: The Power and Passion of Perseverance. Grit was an instant NYT bestseller. Even before the book’s publication, more than eight million people watched Duckworth’s 2013 TED Talk on the subject. Since then, a spate of articles and education initiatives have sprung up with the goal of helping Americans become “grittier.”

Grit is a combination of passion and perseverance toward a single goal. Duckworth posits that grit, rather than talent, is the secret to achievement. It is the defining trait that sets high achievers above the rest. Maybe it’s not surprising that grit has caught on from the classroom to the workplace. American culture prizes tenacity and self-reliance, and our systems reward a stick-with-it, bootstraps approach. Grit, after all, gets results. 

Duckworth believes grit can be cultivated, which is good news for those with their sights set on a far-off goal. Psychologists and education philosophers have also found evidence that grit is teachable, leading schools such as KIPP public charters to incorporate grit into their education model. For philosopher of education Sarah Stitzlein, cultivating the character traits that produce good citizens is exactly what schools are for. But Stitzlein believes that there’s another virtue worth pursuing in the classroom and beyond, which she calls “pragmatist hope.” 

A muscular kind of hope

Why “pragmatist”? Stitzlein uses this term to define a kind of hope that is concerned with what works. Pragmatist hopers don’t just cross their fingers and expect things to get better; they move toward a brighter future by acting, evaluating the success of their actions, and adjusting accordingly. This is a muscular hope, employing creative problem solving and imagination rather than simple optimism.

Instead of fixating solely on a long-term goal, people who hope pragmatically focus on concrete, immediate changes that inch them along in the right direction. It’s like a scientific hypothesis: we act on our hope, see if the action produces change, and then adjust our hopes as necessary. Consider the teacher whose students are falling behind on online assignments because they don’t have internet access at home. Rather than expecting the situation to improve (simple optimism) or expecting them to find their own solutions (grit), the teacher changes the homework format. His long-term hope that his students succeed academically is built brick by brick through immediate action.

Just like grit, hope can be cultivated—in the classroom and beyond. How? Through practice. We make a habit of enacting this scientific-hypothesis approach to hope. We work with classmates, colleagues, and family members to bring about positive change. When failure arrives, as it inevitably does, we learn from our mistakes and design a new hypothesis. Instead of throwing up our hands, we begin again.

A guide for practicing grit

This kind of hope can also serve as a guide for how—and when—to get gritty. For Stitzlein, an emphasis on grit alone is incomplete. By advocating for individual perseverance at all costs, a focus on grit can blind us to entrenched social problems. In other words, if we are gritty purely in advancing individualistic goals, we might miss the need for systemic change, or overlook the needs of those around us. In the classroom, for example, poorer students may not have the capacity to persevere toward a long-term goal when immediate needs consume their attention. This isn’t an indication of their lack of “grittiness;” rather, it’s a sign that something bigger needs to change. 

This is where pragmatist hope comes in. We need to engage in higher-level thinking to discern where it makes sense to apply grit, and when it might be counterproductive. Pragmatist hope focuses on this higher-level set of concerns. While grit has the power to spur us onward and keep us working on the task at hand, we need hope as a map. When we practice pragmatist hope alongside passion and perseverance, this big-picture hope acts as a guide, showing us when and how to tap into tenacity. Once we discern the best path forward, we can employ grit to see the desired changes through.

Historical, collaborative, and collective

Pragmatist hope is historical, encouraging us to find a path forward by looking back. Those who hope pragmatically look to movements throughout history that have generated positive change, and evaluate their success. For example, activists who fight for racial equity can look to the civil rights movement of the 1960s and imagine ways to apply similar approaches today. 

Activist, philosopher, and public intellectual Cornel West is another advocate for pragmatist hope. He reminds us of its realistic, rather than idealistic, nature. In his book Hope on a Tightrope, West writes that “real hope is grounded in a particularly messy struggle and it can be betrayed by naïve projections of a better future that ignore the necessity of doing the real work.”

This historical element of hope takes into account the complexity of progress. Pragmatist hope resists oversimplifying history and makes space for reality, both historic and present: its challenges, unexpected curve balls, and failures. Because this virtue is concerned with the common good, it emphasizes collaboration to achieve collective goals. This cooperation is also a pragmatic choice, because we go further when we work together. Social, political, and economic change is a collective effort of many. 

Hope and grit are similar in that they demand hard work and action. While grit promotes tenacity, pragmatist hope advocates flexibility—and both are essential companions on the long road of change. To move toward the better future of which West writes, we’ll need to practice hope and grit in tandem. We need grit to persevere through setbacks, and hope to see the larger picture. Whether in the classroom, workplace, or neighborhood, cultivating these virtues can move us closer to the collective flourishing of all.