Can Hope be Taught?

Hope and Its Role in Education

  • Sociology
  • Philosophy

Principal Investigators

Sarah M. Stitzlein
Associate Professor of Education, Affiliate Associate Professor of Philosophy
University of Cincinnati


Many people tend to regard children as essentially hopeful beings. While we know that youth often offer a refreshing outlook on the world and a faith in great opportunities ahead, we certainly know this is not always the case for all children or in all communities. In many cases hope is not inherent in the lives or outlooks of children; rather, developing informed and sustainable hope that is not tied to pipe dreams may actually require effort and education.

Much like the assumed outlook of children, links between schooling, teaching and hope seem to be more and more common, especially when made a part of public discourse through films like Waiting for Superman and The Lottery, or labeling specific institutions as “schools of hope.” Yet relatively little work has been done within recent scholarship in philosophy or its sub-discipline of philosophy of education to flesh out exactly what hope means in the context of schooling. In part, little more than lip service has been paid to this issue due to the assumption that hope is a commonly understood concept with a common meaning. Many citizens speak as if everyone has the same understanding of hope and as though people who are hopeful act upon their worldview in similar ways. This project seeks to combat and supplement these assumptions by offering a philosophically sophisticated account of hope and to envision how that account might be put into action in schools.

Whereas many discussions of hope assume simplistic notions of optimism amongst children and schools, my research questions aim to philosophically explicate defensible claims about hope, the drive toward melioration connected to it, and their role in education. I ask: What is hope? Can hope be taught? If so, how? In response, I craft a notion of hope from the work of pragmatists. I will argue that hope, as a set of habits, is, most essentially, a disposition toward possibility and change for the betterment of all. My extension of their work is guided by a close adherence to the longstanding philosophy of John Dewey, but also reflects the efforts of more recent pragmatists and neopragmatists who locate hope within social struggles for a vision for shared living.

Perhaps pragmatism’s staying power and its relative resurgence recently stems from its firm grounding in the real life struggles of daily living while ardently striving to improve everyday life—an outlook that influenced the establishment of American schools, including their social and democratic purposes. Such an orientation is ripe for supporting a realistic yet robust and useful concept of hope and exploring how that hope might be fostered within schools. Pragmatism’s commitment to contextualization and empirical method differentiates it from other traditions and renders its notion of hope more helpful and meaningful, more authentic and more generative. Hope, within this framework, is conceived as habits of action and proclivity, which, I argue, can be cultivated in schools to support students and work toward improved social life.