Hope #2 – Pros and Cons
This lesson plan can be read in conjunction with “Chapter 1. Hope” (pp. 7-26) in the freely available teaching resource Coping: A Philosophical Guide (Open Book Publishers, 2021) with discussion questions (pp. 121-2) and additional teaching materials (p. 119).
We will reflect on the pros and cons of hoping in life. One starting point is two of Dickinson’s poems about hope. Another starting point may be the painting “Hope” by the symbolist painter Georg Frederic Watts. Even if students are too young to remember Obama’s book title The Audacity of Hope, it is still worthwhile to reflect on the question of what might be audacious about hoping and what this might mean in a political context.
1. Dickinson’s Poems
Start off reading these two poems by Emily Dickinson: “Hope is the thing with feathers” and “Hope is a subtle glutton.” Ask the students whether they can see a difference between the poems in Dickinson’s attitude toward hope. Once the students recognize that one paints a positive picture and the other a negative picture, then ask why hoping for something may be a good thing and why it may be a bad thing in life.
2. The Pros and Cons of Hope
Students should be able to come up with at least some variants of these good things about hoping:
- Respite. Hope is just a pleasant state to be in (which is very much present in the poem “Hope is the thing with feathers.”)
- Resolve. Hope motivates us to keep on trying, it keeps us from despair.
- Reflection and Pathways. As we hope, we have our eyes on the prize: We explore what it is that we truly want and how we can get there, given our limited means.
And they should be able to come up with at least some variants of these bad things about hoping:
- Complacency. Hope may make us complacent. So long as the peasants in a feudal society have hope that things may get better, they won’t revolt.
- Frustration. Hopes may be dashed, which can cause frustration.
- Raised Expectations and Loss of Surprise. Once we start hoping for things, we imagine perfection and anything less than that becomes not good enough. It may be better just to let ourselves be surprised.
- Wishful Thinking. Hoping can lead to wishful thinking and self-deception. It may be better to face the hard truth that good things just won’t happen.
- Obsession. Hope can come to dominate our thoughts even when it is pointless.
3. Watts’ Painting
You may ask students to reflect on this iconic painting by the symbolist painter George Frederic Watts, titled “Hope.” Are there features of this painting that point to whether hope is a good or bad thing in life? Here are some possible answers. The blindfold points to wishful thinking and self-deception. The music points to respite. The lute with broken strings points to being creative with limited means. The ragged clothing signifies limited means and yet the woman sits on top of the world.
4. Obama’s The Audacity of Hope
You may ask students to reflect upon the title of Barack Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream? What does “audacity” mean? What kind of hope might Obama be thinking about? Why would it be audacious to have such hopes? What might this mean in the context of politics?