Life is either always a tightrope or a feather bed. Give me the tightrope.
Edith Wharton

I wrote recently about unscrupulous optimism. Mostly this seems to have been understood as a warning against the unbridled enthusiasm for the new and the recklessly blinkered belief that the best possible case will always come to pass. Naturally enough I suppose, some readers read into it a celebration of negativity and cynicism. This could not be further from the truth.

My favourite definition of cynicism comes from the novelist John Fowles who wrote in The Magus, “All cynicism masks a failure to cope – an impotence, in short, and that to despise effort is the greatest effort of all.” This captures the sheer exhausting slog of always believing the worst in everyone. As you’d expect, I’m resistant of the idea that I’m attempting to mask my impotence. I see myself as sceptical rather than cynical. As realistic rather than optimistic. And as sincere as everyone else.

While cynicism is wearisome to work with, sincerity my, at times, present even more of a problem. In A History of The World, Andrew Marr notes the following about the failures of Communism:

It would be wrong to conclude that Communism was itself a purely cynical coating for a system essentially not so different from that of Ivan the Terrible. Without vast numbers of true believers, leather-coated killers, simple workers, chairmen and bureaucrats who genuinely thought they were on the side of history and working to make the world anew, Stalinism could never have happened. The problem was not Communism’s cynicism – though it produced cynicism – the problem was its sincerity.

The problem with unscrupulous optimism is that those guilty of it never see themselves as unscrupulous. They are true believers in whatever endeavour they pursue. There’s plenty of cynicism is education: sharp coursework practices and grade inflation; exam boards engaging in a race to the bottom to sell their tests as ‘easier to pass’; managers sitting safely in offices pontificating on new marking policies whilst children run amok; excluding looked after children so their poor predicted grades don’t show up on schools’ data. And I’m sure you can think of many other examples.

But the true believers are, perhaps, more dangerous. Most of us won’t have to struggle to bring to mind the ‘leather-coated killers’ of education; those who are zealous in their attempts to close down debates, shut teachers up and who see their attempts to tighten their grip around schools’ throats as ‘working to make the world anew’. These shock troops are a terrifyingly militant front line but most true believers appear more benign. These are the ‘simple workers, chairmen and bureaucrats’ who, without thinking too much about what they’re doing, enjoy the feeling of enthusiasm, optimism and hope. Rarely do they look up to see the consequences of their beliefs because to do so would be to draw the attention of the inspectors, consultants and those hungry for promotion.

Instead of valuing a critical perspective, sceptics are spurned as cynics. Anyone casting a critical eye at the idea of Lego promoting play based learning or Apple using teachers in stealth marketing campaigns is held up as a ‘drain’ where all true believers ought to be obedient ‘radiators’. The old lags who’ve seen it all before are dismissed as cantankerous, curmudgeonly and ripe for retirement. The wisdom of the tribe is scribbled out in some mad cultural revolution and we are forced to worship at the altar of the new.

But too much scepticism isn’t the answer. Carl Sagan issued this warning:

If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You become a crotchety old person convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.) But every now and then, a new idea turns out to be on the mark, valid and wonderful. If you are too much in the habit of being skeptical about everything, you are going to miss or resent it, and either way you will be standing in the way of understanding and progress.

The solution? Balance. Yes, we need sincere enthusiasm and hopeful optimism, but it must always be balanced by scepticism, critical thinking and a healthy dose of cynicism. This is the tightrope I strive to walk.