Social inclusion and Lady Gaga

A few years ago, I read in a magazine that successful Mad Men actress January Jones was told by her ex-boyfriend Ashton Kutcher (who was for a time married to the impossibly youthful Demi Moore – do try to keep up) that she would never make it as an actress.

About the same time, I heard on the radio that mega successful entertainer Lady Gaga was told by an ex-boyfriend that she would never make it as a singer or win a Grammy (she has won about 6 Grammys so far – I’ve lost count – not to mention numerous other awards).

Also about the same time, a young academic told me that her line manager had told her she would never get promoted. Um, she did get promoted and then moved her talents to another university.

These stories reminded me of one I heard from a friend who was discussing why she had never completed her degree. A lecturer wrote on her essay words to the effect of ‘People like you shouldn’t be at university’. She took this message to heart and now lives with the limitations of not quite having that qualification, which she had almost finished.

I got to thinking, what is it with all this negativity, telling people what is wrong with them and promoting hopelessness? Why not focus on strengths and try to help people to improve their skills, study, careers and lives? It’s easier, it’s more rewarding, it’s more helpful and it moves the world forward.

As a psychologist, I’ve long been a fan of focussing on success and the positive and I’m a bit taken lately with human potential ideology and hope theory. The former moves away from deficit models to models of human potential and the latter promotes the generation and pursuit of goals.

Human potential ideology is underpinned by notions of positive psychology and ideas of transformation and empowerment. If you haven’t heard of positive psychology, I’d recommend spending an hour or so briefing yourself on Martin Seligman’s work – doing so might give you a new and happier outlook (or you could just keep doing email – it’s a free world).

In simple terms, hope is about one knowing where one wants to be and believing one will get there. Hope theory is a bit more complex and discussion of it uses terms like ‘pathways’ and ‘agency’ and that could put some off, but the ideas are related to more widely understood ideas of optimism, self-efficacy and self-esteem. Charles Richard “Rick” Snyder is your guy here. (Again, you might prefer email).

These ideas of human potential and hope have currency in terms of the global higher education social inclusion agenda, as outlined by Jennifer Gidley and colleagues in an article in the journal Higher Education Policy from 2010. It’s arguably an oldie but its definitely a goodie.

Gridley et al. argue that an integrated theory of quality in higher education would include the dominant neoliberal ideas, as well as other ideas, including these human potential notions.

As they put it, these notions highlight the fact that humans are multi-dimensional beings who have needs, interests and roles beyond contributing to the economy. There are implications from this point of view for universities teaching and supporting ‘non-traditional’ students. Worth a read.

A version of this article by the author was first published on a Deakin University website in 2010.