Intellectual Diversity

(Aside: I am in the process of culling my blog posts to select those that are the best of the lot. I am planning to publish those in the not-too-distant-future. In the meantime, I will probably have little new to say and will instead post here some of the past blog posts that will eventually find their way into the book — I hope. Thanks for bearing with me.)

One of the catch words in institutions of higher education these days is “diversity.” What is meant by this word is “cultural diversity,” an attempt to assure students that they are receiving a broad education and that they are being introduced to a variety of world views. The idea is that in doing this they will realize that theirs is only one of a great many ways to look at the world. It is a worthy objective, even though, according to recent studies, the diversity appears to focus on feminism and very little else — despite the fact that women, as far as I know, do not constitute a separate “culture.” It is hardly adequate to look in some depth at a single minority viewpoint in at attempt to broaden the student’s awareness of the complex world in which he or she lives, though it is certainly a step in the right direction.

In any event, there is no doubt that there are indeed a great many ways of looking at our common world and any attempt to broaden the narrow strictures of the average student’s world view is deserving of applause. Cultural differences are real and worth noting. I know, for example, when I watch my favorite British mysteries I miss a great deal in the way of nuance, “inside jokes,” colloquialisms, and terms that the Brits use with great familiarity which are nearly foreign to me. Humor seems especially culture-bound. In reading a translation of a book written in a foreign language, again, I realize that I miss a great deal of the subtleties that are picked up by someone reading the same book in the language in which it was written. But one can dwell too long and hard on the differences and miss the all-important similarities.

Kobo Abe (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Kobo Abe
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

For example, while reading a novel by Japanese novelist Kobo Abe — generally regarded as one of Japan’s greatest modern writers — it is inevitable that I will miss a great deal since I do not read Japanese, have never visited the country, and must rely on a translator to give me a peek into what the fuss is all about. But at the same time, what impresses me most after all is said and done is the universality of human experience: Abe is writing about other human beings (albeit fictional characters) who are just like you and me. In fact, I am told on the dust jacket that Abe’s novel, Secret Rendezvous, “reads as if it were a collaborative effort of Hieronymus Bosch, Franz Kafka, and Mel Brooks” — all Westerners. It seems to me this is of vital importance in the discussion about cultural diversity: we differ from one another in so many ways but in most important respects we are really all alike. The differences are exaggerated by advocates of cultural diversity at the cost of recognizing the all-important similarity of human experience and the fact that we share a common human nature.

In the end, therefore, I would come down on the side of intellectual diversity over cultural diversity, making sure students are aware of different ways of thinking about their world as opposed to simply cataloging cultural differences.  In fact, I might go so far as to say that the cultural differences are trivial and much less important than the similarities. The fact that we can communicate with one another — even in translation — is of central importance, especially with regard to the education of young minds. Intellectual diversity, in this regard, is of major importance in education, making sure the student is not simply becoming indoctrinated into one way of seeing things (the professor’s way, generally), but becoming aware that similar problems can be approached in many ways and that the same rules of logic and inference apply across the board. It is ironic that defenders of cultural diversity have attacked Western intellectual tradition as a system of ideas put forward by “dead, white European males,” when, in fact, there is no better arena for conflicting ideas — that is, intellectual diversity. And it is precisely this sort of diversity that engenders thought, not random information about diverse cultural experience. Let’s not stress differences in cultural viewpoint to the extent that we ignore essential human similarities. And while we are at it, let’s assure that the student is being immersed in a variety of conflicting ideas: education is less about information than it is about engaging with some of the best minds that ever set pen to paper — especially those who disagreed with one another about practically everything.

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8 thoughts on “Intellectual Diversity

  1. This is just my opinion on what is wrong with schools.

    I see two problems with modern school education, that are both aspects of the same underlying socially, and intellectually, bereft outcome.

    The first is ‘peer’ pressure. Britain especially suffer from this insidious form of control. Generally, to think differently to your fellow classmates, is to evoke wrath and bullying, usually from the intellectually and socially inept! They and their parents (usually these dogmas are passed down within the family structure…eliciting the phase ‘we do it that way, ‘cos we’ve always done it that way.’ It kills any enthusiasm and genuine wonder and leaves a hollow shell of a child ‘just trying to get through the system.
    To say that this hinders any dynamic thinking in them when they become adults, is a gross understatement.

    The second problem is in the school institutions themselves. In an attempt to give every student a basic grounding in critical thinking (through the application of several subjects that may, or may not be useful to endeavours later in life), the teacher or professor must offer material that all students can digest and spew out at exam time…again, pandering to the lowest common denominator.

    Education requires a fresh approach. Of course all students need a grounding of core skills…done before high school age. But, I believe that the high school (secondary, comprehensive or grammar school in Britain) is the undoing of the skill set and creating difficulties when children are cast into a different social structure and order. They have to toughen up and learn to cope with stressful parameters while trying to keep up their ‘grades.’ For many, it is too difficult to balance this juggling act and it is their education and curiosity that suffers the most.

    I think that children should have the same core group from Kindergarten to the time they graduate. If left with the same ‘friends’ there is no bullying and peer pressure is replaced by healthy competition to do well.
    As for the respect of other cultures or intellects, that would come automatically through short group exchanges in the latter years of high school. It works on the same principle as the confidence of a very young baby…it crawls away from mum only tiny amounts….feeling its way into the world and gaining confidence and intelligence about its surroundings at a comfortable pace. Take that same baby and separate it from its mother across a room (where it feels abandoned and stressed), causes the baby to cry. A crying baby is learning only negative feedback from its world. So, it is with older children.

    Some of the most intelligent children (socially adept with adults, although some might use the term ‘precocious’), that I have ever met, were usually home schooled, raised in an environment that expected them to contribute to the family chores, and exposed gently to an adult world.

    School should encourage free thinking, individually based problem solving and a dynamic approach to choosing subject matter. Imagine what the student body in a research university would accomplish with a head start like that!

    • An excellent comment. I tend to look at things from the perspective of the teacher rather than the student — though my eye is always on the question: how will this help the youngster gain control his or her own mind? I have blogged about this (some would say) endlessly. But peer pressure is a considerable force among the young and a core requirement from the early grades through what we call “High School” would be a big help. It would meet with great resistance among teachers in this part of the world, however, who fight against standardizing curriculum, as they see it. I think it is a terrific idea and I thank you!

  2. I had this discussion with a teacher here. She told me that the younger children need smaller class sizes. I don’t agree…I believe an initial class size of 40 or even 50 children is possible. What is needed is one master teacher and several teaching assistants so that ratios come down to one adult to seven children with the very young and gradually decrease as children become more independent and capable. I see no reason to move children to new schools…it is the teachers that need to move!
    As far as curriculum, children should have subjects and direction to follow their talents, while learning how to interlace them with the talents of other children for unique and worthy goals. This is not team building, nor conformity, (that only creates people who can work on assembly lines (which is currently being replaced by Robotics and AI). Rather, it is the pursuit of excellence and individualistic expression within the subjects suggested.

    I will give you a simple example. When I was 10 years old (in the 1960’s), I had a music teacher who came to our class with a very different approach. Yes, she taught us the basic notes, how to read and write music, and she introduced us to some very basic instruments. What she did next was amazing enough that I never forgot that class. Rather than try to teach us simple tunes or songs, she asked us to choose an instrument, then we were to write four bars of our own composition (using our newly acquired skills) and then to practice it on our chosen instrument. At the end of the week, we had to stand up to perform each of our individual compositions for each other in the class. I am not a musical talent, and never had any more music lessons, but I can still sort of read music. To me, that teacher accomplished more to inspire creation in children than any other teacher I remember.

  3. ” Humor seems especially culture-bound. ” – Yes, I experience those subtle differences in translations, often truly ‘lost’ in translation… Sometimes it is something said in humor, but other times more serious – like when I asked for a translator’s help for conveying the essence of Muir’s quote about destroying trees. How can one convey ‘strong bole backbone’ to a culture that rarely hunts? We compared it to an ‘horcone’ which is a post made from trees that is so strong that it’s difficult to drive a nail into the wood…

    What was interesting is that it gave us all a strong mental workout – trying to convey the essence in another language… Ha, and then to be immersed yesterday in the Quichua language! Also important is that the student be open minded to embrace what another has to share….

    Congratulations on your work to compile the best or most popular of your best posts!

    • Many thanks. As a rule the most popular is seldom the best!! But I don’t have that problem as my readership is very skimpy indeed, so very few of the posts were read by more than a dozen or so people. I am too dour for most, apparently!

      • I strongly disagree with you, Professor; you continue to mentor and befriend many. Unfortunately even the joy or reading seems to be a dying ‘art.’ No one can be blamed – it’s that people are so swept up in lives that own them, that they don’t have time for feeding the soul. Reading, in my opinion, plays a large role in happiness. Open a book or a magazine or a blog, and one is instantly transported elsewhere. When the writing is good, then we’re also captivated by the art of that written word.

        I’d rather sit with someone like you and enjoy a good conversation – than watch the Superbowl! People are just making strange choices these days, and it all plays into what’s happening in world events and our culture

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