"Getting Them There" by Dean of Students Marcela Maldonado
I am a huge fan of TED Talks. I spend far too much time looking for the latest or most interesting ones online, and they often and quickly become what I will turn to when procrastinating about things that need to get done. I find these talks inspiring, even mesmerizing, and relish the minutes I spend absorbed in someone else’s world or line of thinking. Indeed few presentations have impacted me more than Chimamanda Adichie’s highly acclaimed “The Danger of a Single Story.” Hers is a cautionary tale about our incessant need to create a single story about the “other.” Adichie shares “show a people as one thing, as only one thing over and over again, and that is what they become.”
As an immigrant to this country, this notion of a “single story” holds particular resonance for me. My immigrant story, while sharing traits with all such stories, is unique, yet people have always made assumptions about where I come from, how I got here, and the circumstances that led my family to make the decisions that they did. Interestingly enough, friends and colleagues have sometimes rewritten my own narrative to fit their purposes. I find no malice in any of this, but simply a desire to make things neat, tidy, and easy. But the human experience isn’t easy, and expedient paths to understanding can fall far short of the goal. The need today for efficiency in all we do often masks or works against the very things we need in our interpersonal lives, the qualities of empathy and meaning, which are necessary to connect with others.
Chimamanda Adichie further states that “the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” Nothing rings more true today than these words, as we grapple with so many political and philosophical complexities. To only hear one story of a people or a nation leads to far more ignorance than to know nothing at all. We have default positions about the “other,” and the damage comes in painting an incomplete, if not debilitating, picture. While the stereotypes are bad enough, when these are modeled or perpetuated in the lives of students, we enter dangerous territory.
These are interesting times, and there are few things we could do better for our students that to encourage them to hear from many voices and to know many stories. The goal of a Nobles education cannot simply be tolerance, but rather a true understanding of peoples and places that serves each of us as global citizens. Diversity of thought and action has never been more important, and how to make sense of the world through the multiplicity of ideas that students are exposed to daily is a key ingredient of a successful education. We need understanding that moves us forward, and our students need skills of discernment in order to wade through all that is coming their way. So it is incumbent upon us to teach these qualities, encourage respectful skepticism, honor what isn’t ours, and respect the infinite dignity of the individual.
This country has given me more opportunities and possibilities than my parents could have ever imagined. It has formed and shaped me, and taught me in no uncertain terms the power of ideas. Nobles allows me to belong to a community of possibilities, where we strive in countless ways to push our students beyond what is safe and tidy, and to not be afraid to hear the unfamiliar and uncomfortable. It is from worthy engagement that we come to understand others, but there is also inherent responsibility in freely exercising our opinions. We will continue to instill this every day from the stage, in our classrooms, and via conversations in the halls. There is urgency to this task with students today more than ever, and a profound sense of responsibility on our part to get them there.