Sunday, March 13, 2016

Becoming More Themselves

What SXSWedu needs is probably needs is more skeptical faculty to attend.”

I’ve never been to SXSWedu, but this line from Josh Kim’s dispatch made a lot of sense to me.  Some of the most productive discussions I’ve seen happened in settings in which people with different angles on the question came together.  That’s not the default setting, most of the time.

And there are good reasons for that.  On a practical level, most of us have limited time and resources, so we’re likely to try to spend them where they make the most sense.  I’m less likely to attend, say, SXSWedu than to attend the League for Innovation in the Community College.  The former sounds sort of fun, but less directly relevant to my work than the latter.  And going to both just isn’t realistic, given the demands of the day job, the limits to travel funding, and my desire to see my family now and again.

Multiply that calculation by however many people, and you start to get gatherings that draw the same sets of people every year.  Each individual decision is rational, but the outcome at a system level is less than ideal.  If only techies go to SXSW, then reality checks from non-techies may be lacking.  If only senior administrators attend the AACC, say, then discussions from faculty perspectives may be lacking.  (On a more local level, I’ve been to department meetings at which it quickly became clear that on a given issue, the faculty had only ever talked to each other.  When I raised a point that seemed like it should have been obvious, it came as news.)  No particular group has a monopoly on truth or wisdom; if a group gets too insular for too long, it can lose touch in important ways.

The same can even hold true of individual people.  I’ve lived long enough now to notice that as people get older, they somehow become more like themselves.  They become purer expressions of whatever tendencies they had earlier.  (As Hegel put it, “there is nothing in the essence of an idea that will not become manifest in the series of its appearances.” ) That’s good and bad, but it’s consistent.  The social psychologists out there may be rolling their eyes at this, but I think it’s part of why too-young marriages are likelier to split up: until they’ve lived some more, it isn’t clear yet which traits are fleeting and which will intensify.  If the couple guesses wrong, they’re in for some unpleasant times.  Older couples are likelier to know what they’re getting, since what they’re getting is more fully formed.

The people I’ve known who grew old gracefully usually made a point of remaining open to new things.  With age, it’s actually easier to do that, since it doesn’t seem so much like your own identity is at stake.  If you’re busily trying to pin down a sense of yourself, then too much external information can be overwhelming or threatening.  But if you know basically who you are, you’re able to try new things without the same existential anxiety.  Somehow, though, that sense of safety too often becomes complacency.  Continuing to seek challenges requires a conscious choice.

In the context of gatherings like AACC or SXSW, that conscious choice has to happen at the organizational level.  They need to decide to bring in people who aren’t the usual suspects.  They can highlight blind spots, and provide a sort of quality control.  Sebastian Thrun could have avoided the humiliating failure he endured at San Jose State if he had bothered to listen earlier to people who teach outside of Stanford and MIT.  In the best cases, the new perspectives don’t just exercise a sort of skeptic’s veto; they actually strengthen new ideas by making sure they reflect realities more complicated than their originators saw.  

So yes, I fully agree with Josh Kim.  The benefits of diverse perspectives aren’t limited to the diversity of race and gender, as important as those are.  And cultivating the exchange of those perspectives requires more than just passive acceptance.  It requires a conscious effort.  Without that, groups (and people) just become more and more themselves until nobody outside the group listens anymore.