Visit any kindergarten or elementary school in this country — in the richest community or the poorest — and you’ll find first-, second- and third-graders who love their teachers, love school and love learning. Ask a classroom full of these children how many of them can sing and practically every hand shoots up.
Ask the same question of a middle school class and far fewer hands go up; still fewer high school seniors will volunteer to sing. The question I often pose to college faculty: “What happened? Who put the light of learning out?”
Researchers find that up until middle school, young people believe that time, effort and hard work will enable them to succeed. However, by the time they enter high school, they believe that “ability” is something they have. If they don’t have it, there’s really nothing they can do about it.
Young children intuitively understand that failure is part of learning. That’s why they persist when trying to sing a song, tie their shoes or say the alphabet. Ask high school or college students how often a child falls down before she gives up trying to walk, and they all respond, “Never!”
Kindergarten and elementary school kids are hopeful and optimistic; they are willing to take the risks essential to learning and achievement. In fact, when it comes to college, hope and optimism are better predictors of success than high school grades or standardized test scores.
As Allie Greenspan writes in a 2012 Inside Higher Ed article, “It doesn’t seem surprising that someone who can set goals, visualize paths to achieve them, and summon the motivation to start down those paths is more likely to succeed than someone who can’t do those things.”
Why is optimism important? Remember the childhood story of “The Little Engine That Could”? When faced with the challenge of climbing that hill, the Little Engine said to itself over and over, “I think I can, I think I can.” As it came nearer to the top of the hill, it changed its self-talk to, “I know I can!” If, like that engine, young people believe they are capable, they are more likely to work harder.
Optimism is not just essential to success in education, it is also necessary to meet the challenges of life. In a 2011 New York Times column, University College London researcher Tali Sharot offers further evidence that being optimistic is a good thing: “We now know that underestimating the obstacles life has in store lowers stress and anxiety, leading to better health and well-being. Believing a goal is attainable motivates us to get closer to our dreams.”
I don’t often listen to Rush Limbaugh, because doing so doesn’t engender much hope or optimism. However, a young man named Leo recently called in to share the pessimism he and many of his generation feel regarding their future prospects. Rushbo seized on Leo’s comments to proclaim, “Young people have no optimism about their future in this country.”
Hope and the sense that the future is positive and worth looking forward to are key aspects of optimism. People who cannot imagine a bright future for themselves, or who believe that the world is hostile or indifferent to them, are vulnerable to depression, anxiety and despair.
Contrary to Leo’s and Limbaugh’s conclusions, recent studies find America’s young people continuing to manifest the optimism, persistence and determination that have long powered the American Dream.
A 2012 report, “Young, Underemployed and Optimistic,” found only 9 percent of 18-34-year-olds saying they don’t think they will ever have enough to live the life they want. Eighty-eight percent say they either have or earn enough money now, or expect that they will in the future. The level of optimism among young people is undiminished from where it was in 2004.
“We know that young people tend to be optimistic in the face of tough economic times, but I think it’s especially interesting that there’s so much optimism considering that there’s so much unemployment,” said Scott Keeter, a Pew co-editor of the report “Millennials: Confident. Connected. Open to Change.”
Hope and optimism are fundamental to striving and success. As another school year begins, we must support and encourage young people to be positive about their ability to meet and overcome life’s challenges. Falling down is not to fail, as long as they keep getting back up.
As Duke economists Manju Puri and David T. Robinson suggest, optimism is like red wine. A glass a day can keep you singing!
(Tom Brown is a St. Helena resident who served as a dean at Saint Mary’s College of California for 27 years. He currently is a consultant and speaker at colleges and universities that are seeking to keep more of the students they enroll. Send comments, questions or suggestions for future columns to: email@example.com.)