By Eric Schwarz
In my day to day life, I’m as optimistic as they come. My friend Charlie Rose once told me that I wasn’t just a “pie in the sky” optimist, I was a “whole bakery in the sky” optimist. Yet for 20 years – like many social activists – I’ve talked more about what’s wrong with the world than what’s right. Ten years ago I wrote a paper saying the American Dream was ending and opportunity declining. Recently I’ve joined many education reformers and social entrepreneurs to recite a litany of concerns about achievement gaps, failing public schools, and an urgent need to abandon our current failed approach.
I’m starting to think that I – that we – have been fundamentally wrong. It’s not that we don’t face huge problems and huge injustices. We do. In many areas social progress is too slow and in some areas we are sliding backwards. But I am coming to believe that a “glass half empty” description of our current reality – a frame that mostly talks about problems with our economy, our education system, and our public institutions – is fundamentally inaccurate and may actually undermine future progress.
I’ve been thinking about these issues as I work with colleagues to launch College for Social Innovation – a new venture to educate and inspire the next generation of problem solvers to tackle humanity’s tough challenges.
Last night I spoke to our awesome pilot cohort of 14 students – college sophomores, juniors, and seniors enrolled in our fully-credited, semester-long internship program that matches diverse cohorts of students with mentors at some of Boston’s best social change organizations. I spoke about why I think it’s the best time in human history to be a problem solver. It's a great time to be a problem solver in part because there are big problems. Climate change, economic inequality, racism, terrorism. These are big problems and we’ll need waves of creative, wise, team-oriented problem solvers to address them.
It’s also a great time to be a problem solver because we have huge momentum. The arc of history really is bending toward justice, as Dr. Martin Luther King suggested it would in his 1964 commencement address at Wesleyan University. Turn on the TV or listen to many political leaders and you hear that things are getting worse – that our very existence and way of life is threatened by incompetent government leaders or evil capitalists. But in actuality, across a range of issues the evidence shows we are making extra-ordinary progress. We are building a more just world with more learning, more opportunity, more wealth, more safety, and more access to human rights.
Compared to the 1950s, almost four times as many human beings live in countries where they vote for their leaders and enjoy basic human rights.
Violence due to war and/or terrorism is down and violent crime in the US since 1992 has declined dramatically. In the early 1990s, one in twelve Americans was a victim of violent crime every year. Today it’s one in forty-eight.
In the last 20 years the percentage of the world’s population living in extreme poverty declined from 37.1 percent to 9.6 percent
Since 1980 real after-tax income for Americans in the bottom income quintile (the bottom fifth) has grown by 46 percent (after adjusting for inflation). For Americans in the middle three quintiles, real after-tax income grew by 41 percent in this same time period. Wealthy people did better – particularly the top 1 percent – but the critique of many that average families have made no progress just isn’t true.
Finally, did you know that despite persistent educational achievement gaps today’s African-American and Latino 9th graders are as proficient in math as the average African-American or Latino 12th grader was in 1980? Did you know that the race-based academic achievement gap has been cut in half since the 1950s and that the college access (but not college completion) gap is almost gone?
I’m not advocating for some happy talk narrative that minimizes our challenges or raises false hopes. We live amidst severe injustices that do and should cause outrage. But the outrages we face today should not turn us into cynics. Just as research shows overwhelmingly that children learn more when they develop a growth mindset, I believe society will progress more if we adopt a societal growth mindset. We need to cultivate belief that change is possible by studying and celebrating the real positive change happening all around us.
I believe we are more likely to solve tomorrow’s big problems if we recognize the progress we are making today. And I worry we undermine our efforts to make progress when we tell the American public that our public and private institutions are broken, that little is working, and that the glass is half-empty and getting emptier.