This is a post by Rosalyn Black and Lucas Walsh.
Losing the dualism
A recent post to this blog by Peter Kelly suggests that young people’s relationship to the future should not be thought of in terms of dualistic notions of optimism or pessimism. It argues that young people’s scenario planning is an exercise in hope.
Our 2018 book was an attempt to critically unpack the nature of hope for young people, both as an affective state and as an active, invested exercise or activity. It drew on our interviews with young undergraduate or postgraduate students within public universities in France, the UK and Australia to present a point-in-time reflection on these students’ hopes for their imagined futures and how the realisation of these hopes may be supported or undermined by current socio-political climates.
Cycles of hope and despair
Our relationship to the idea of hope fluctuated during the course of conducting the study and writing the book. On the one hand, we were (and are still) concerned about the role of education discourses (in this case, higher education discourses) in encouraging young people to hope: to aspire to various forms of desirable success, to be resilient and adaptable in the face of the forces that may hinder that success, and to forge their own solutions to uncertainty.
We continue to be concerned about the ways that higher education produces what Sellar and Zipin have called ‘educational incitements to optimism about better life prospects through intensified self-investment’ (Sellar & Zipin, 2019, p. 573). We are concerned that these incitements further promote an individualised figure of youth who is responsible both for the formulation of their own hopeful imagined future and for its realisation. We are also concerned that such incitements engage young people in misleading forms of hope that are too much like magical thinking, forms of hope that embroil them in what Berlant has famously characterised as ‘cruel optimism’ or the pursuit of unachievable fantasies of the good life.
Stephen Ball has recently written about the endless cycles of hope and despair that emerge from the sociology of education as it relates to schooling. We borrow his quote from Allen (2015, p.8 in Ball, 2020) to reflect on how hope is fostered by higher education:
Unfortunately, there is nothing inherently radical, or even progressive, about the pursuit of hope. Indeed, in advanced liberal societies, capitalism depends upon it. These societies operate by stimulating rather than simply directing or repressing the desires of their populations. Under these conditions, obedient subjects are those that have not given up hope (original emphasis).
The productivity of hope
On the other hand, we recognise, with other youth scholars, that hope is an essential affective resource for young people dealing with extreme manifestations of uncertainty (Bishop & Willis, 2014). It may be what Janet Newman has called ‘an ambiguous political construct’ (2015), but it is also an essential resource in uncertain times, a form of capital on which young people can draw, especially where other forms of capital are limited (Grant, 2017).
It may also be something that can be too readily discounted. Peter Kelly’s recent post argues that hope, as opposed to optimism, ‘is a very different, and inherently positive and productive, thing’ (Kelly, 2020).
Productive is a key word here. Gallagher’s recent Radical Hope project is an argument for the relational, ‘social doing of hope’ or ‘production of hope’ by young people (Gallagher, Rodricks, & Jacobson, 2020, p. vi). With their colleagues, they maintain that ‘hope pertains to the possible’ (Gallagher et al., 2020, p. vi), implying that it is, even in current global circumstances, a practical engagement with an achievable future.
Nothing simple about hope
This engagement also emerged from our 2018 interviews, but it was far from a simple response to uncertainty. What we found overall in the accounts of our young interviewees was a complex affective mixture of hope, optimism, pessimism and anxiety: what we have called a ‘tempered hope or dark optimism’ (Black & Walsh, 2019, p. 130).
In Australia, Irina shared her fears about decaying international relations: ‘because I don’t know what happens. I mean, what if another war is about to happen? … I just don’t know what the future might bring’. In the UK, Alice described her anxieties about security threats and domestic terrorism: ‘so many things are uncertain now. … And I think that all leads back to constant anxiety that you have all the time. … There just seems there’s so many different things that you don’t know what’s going to happen next’. In France, Lyr talked about the uncertainties of climate change:
well, in 10 years, it might not be a problem. But in 20/30 years, there might be some huge issues coming. You know, what I have planned for my life, might not be able to happen, because the world will be too different, or drastically changed by some very important things. At the same time, Ninon in France, like others, voiced a persistent hope for the future: ‘what I see around me and what I actually feel, I don’t feel like this is such a terrible time to live in and I don’t see – I don’t think that the future is going to be so dark’.
Hope operates at the borderland
Kathleen Gallagher suggests that hope operates at the ‘borderland between real and imagined’ (in Gallagher et al., 2020, p. ix), an illusion that captures its liminal quality. The extreme uncertainty and contingency of these times has rendered the future fundamentally unknowable for the current generation of young people. It is, nonetheless, something in which many continue to invest hope, a hope that cannot and should not be discounted.
Having said this, the individualised hopes that are promoted by education systems cannot be the only forms of hope that young people take forward into the future. The notion of solidarity or solidarities, which has been so strong within political theory, may have relevance here (see Mayes, In press). The burning questions no longer concern young people’s hopes for the future are duped or feasible, realistic projects or exercises in fantasy. They begin with the questions that we asked at the end of our book:
- What role should be played by key institutions, including political and educational institutions, in creating a climate in which young people can generate and maintain a viable hope for the future?
- Borrowing from Bessant and her colleagues, how might we forge ‘a new intergenerational contract’, one that is ‘based on a clear view of what constitutes a good life and what is required to sustain such a life’ (Bessant, Farthing, & Watts, 2017, p. 184)?
To these we now add these further questions:
- What might a climate of viable hope look like?
- What shared or common projects of hope might young people engage in to foster this climate?
- In turn, how can hope provide a buttress to support these?
Ball, S. J. (2020). The errors of redemptive sociology or giving up on hope and despair. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 41(6), 870-880. doi: 10.1080/01425692.2020.1755230
Bessant, J., Farthing, R., & Watts, R. (2017). The precarious generation: A political economy of young people. Abingdon: Routledge.
Bishop, E. C., & Willis, K. (2014). ‘Without hope everything would be doom and gloom’: young people talk about the importance of hope in their lives. Journal of Youth Studies, 17(6), 778-793.
Black, R., & Walsh, L. (2019). Imagining Youth Futures: University Students in Post-truth Times (Vol. 9): Springer.
Gallagher, K., Rodricks, D. J., & Jacobson, K. (2020). Introduction: A Situated, Ethical, Imaginative Doing and Being in the Encounter of Research. In K. Gallagher, D. J. Rodricks & K. Jacobson (Eds.), Global Youth Citizenry and Radical Hope (pp. 1-20). Singapore: Springer.
Grant, T. (2017). The complexity of aspiration: the role of hope and habitus in shaping working-class young people’s aspirations to higher education. Children’s Geographies, 15(3), 289-303.
Kelly, P. (2020). COVID-19 and Young People’s Recovery Scenarios: An Exercise in Hope ‘[Blog post]’. Retrieved from https://unevocrmit.org/2020/09/15/covid-19-and-young-peoples-recovery-scenarios-an-exercise-in-hope/
Mayes, E. (In press). Politics of solidarity in educational partnerships. In M. A. Peters (Ed.), Encyclopaedia of Teacher Education. Singapore: Springer.
Sellar, S., & Zipin, L. (2019). Conjuring optimism in dark times: Education, affect and human capital. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 51(6), 572-586.