We Need To Tell Our Students That 'It's Better Than It Looks’

Teaching critical optimism.

March 12, 2018

It's Better Than It Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear by Gregg Easterbrook

Published in February of 2018.

A couple of weeks ago, David Brooks wrote a column based on his experiences "going around to campuses asking undergraduate and graduate students how they see the world”.  (Well, some campuses, such as " super-competitive schools — Harvard, Yale, the University of Chicago and Davidson”).

The main message the Brooks has taken away from these conversations - one evident in the title of the column A Generation Emerging From the Wreckage - is that "this is a generation with diminished expectations.”

Would the conversations that Brooks had with those college students had gone differently if everyone was reading Greg Easterbrook’s new book It’s Better Than It Looks?

My guess is yes.  And this perhaps should give us higher ed folks some pause.

Mostly, I think, we as postsecondary educators have done a terrible job in conveying to our students the following:

A. That they are living now in the best possible time to be alive, of all times in history.

B. That while there personal future is not guaranteed, and that there will be setbacks, as a group today’s students will have opportunities greater than any cohort in history.

C. That the arrow of history runs towards progress, and that they have an essential role to play in extending the benefits of progress to the world.

Easterbrook makes the point that academics and intellectuals who make these assertions, and one’s like them, are basically looked down upon by our academic community.  I agree.

The data, however, is beyond argument.  On almost any measure that one could construct - from poverty to income to nutrition to health to the environment - our world has improved.

This improvement has been spectacularly dramatic over the past 30 years, with over a billion people escaping from absolute poverty in China and India.

Hundreds of millions will join the global middle class in the next two decades, as urbanization and economic growth will enable improvements in access to education, sanitation, health care, transportation, and leisure that were previously out of reach.

As Easterbrook points out, the arc of progress has not been limited to only the emerging economies.  Believe it or not, life in the U.S. has gotten better in the lifetime of the parents of today’s college students - and will get much better in their lifetimes.  We too easily forget the advantages of cities that have revived (Boston, Chicago, NYC, LA, to name a few), crime that has dropped, and smog that has disappeared.

Compared to 1969 (the year I was born), cars are safer and more fuel efficient, air travel is safer and cheaper, and information has gone from scarce and expensive to abundant and cheap.  We could go on and on and on. (Care to add to the list of things that have improved in the world in your lifetime?)

There are no end to examples of how the world has improved in the past 48 years, and very few data points to say that things have gotten worse.  Go ahead, take your best shot - I’m ready for complaints of rising inequality, wage stagnation, college debt, and health care costs.

A world getting better does not mean that we live in the most perfect of all possible world’s.  Rather, we live in a world that we have the opportunity to make better, and on balance we have been making our world a better place to live.

Easterbrook does not shy away from the challenges of progress.  He has lots to say about global warming.  (Namely, worry - but don’t worry too much - as we can address this challenge).

On other measures, such as the need to reform entitlements to match longer life spans, Easterbrook is cautiously optimistic.

His point in It's Better Than It Looks is not that the next generation will not face big challenges (wicked problems), but that they will be better equipped than any generation in the past to meet these challenges head on.

Today’s college students will graduate with the best educated and most diverse group of students ever to participate in higher education.  They will have opportunities and options that we can only dream of.  Do they know this?

Sure, the life course of tomorrow’s college graduates may be different than our own.  They will marry and have kids later then we did, if at all.  And if they have kids, they will have less of them.  They will have many jobs.  They might not own their own home.  None will be particularly secure in their career of choice.  They will need to keep learning their entire lives in order to remain economically competitive - and they will.

The idea of a segmented life of education, work, and retirement will no longer describe how almost anyone spends their time on earth.  Lifespans will be much longer (they really will), but that life will not progress in predictable stages.  The world and the country will be much richer, but those riches will be less and less equitably distributed.

I highly recommend that every college and university president purchase enough copies of It's Better Than It Looks to give to every one of their students.  (If I am ever a college president, expect lots and lots of campus book clubbing).

We need to train our students for optimism.

Understanding how the world has improved, and will improve in their lifetimes, may be amongst the most important things that we can teach them.  It's Better Than It Looks is a good place to start.

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