Dialogue and Viewpoint Diversity
The coddling of Don Quixote's library
I spent the last week or so giving Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind a listen. I knew I was in for an experience when quite a few in my network praised or at least responded to its addition to my ‘to read list.’ There was a confluence of a few things that supported a further dive for me here, and I was pleased to find the book thoughtful, relatively balanced, and a sort of exemplar of its own values and point of view.
In my deep-dives into Nikulin’s philosophy of dialogue here, I reflected on interruption and unfinalizability. There are so many catchphrases and little aphorisms around this wisdom, and a few are listed toward the end of Lukianoff and Haidt’s book:
I’m not sure how I ended up here (though The Coddling gives me a sense that some parenting moves and community realities of my youth in the 90s really helped out), but I’ve lived in a place of intellectual humility for what feels like a long period of time now. I get that saying “I’m intellectually humble” is a kind of #humblebrag, and a vainglorious sort of bias I’m leveling to obfuscate my ego. Yet, it’s mystifying to me that a concept of an “open marketplace of ideas,” or a venue for viewpoint diversity is such a fraught and almost dismissed claim these days.
Here’s a curveball for you all—when I was studying lots of mysticism and world-historical religion and philosophy about a decade ago, I came to compare and contrast some Kant and some Old Testament:
“"Have the courage to use your own understanding," is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.”
Source: What Is Enlightenment? (emphasis added)
“Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.”
Source: Proverbs 3:5 (emphasis added)
Whether or not I’m going to appeal to a higher power when I distrust my own understanding can remain on the sidelines for our discussion today; but, the recommendation to not trust myself seems sound, and accords with the Socratic “I know that I know nothing.”
Why does this matter in education and instructional leadership? Perhaps it’s helpful to think along the lines of a (false) dichotomy between skills and knowledge. Surely, one can find themselves in a reasonable position wherein a preponderance of evidence supports a certain position. This is the evidentiary and pseudo-objective basis upon which I’ve conducted classroom observations and instructional feedback conversations. However, some self-reflection helps me understand that surely I’ve been wrong plenty times—with personal decisions, with evaluations of my own art or writing, with relationship and job choices, etc. So while I won’t dismiss evidence, I’m convinced there’s a possibility of me being wrong, and of there being a different interpretation or at least a differently justified response.
This morning a few tweets have come across my timeline about books in school libraries:
If there’s always a chance that one could be wrong with one’s interpretation or claim—why would we remove different viewpoints or takes from our evidence gathering? Why in the world would teachers and librarians be thinking about the ideas they’d like to see removed from their libraries? The whole episode reminds me of the brilliant 6th chapter from my favorite book, Cervantes’ The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote.
In this chapter, the curate and the barber interrogate Don Quixote’s library after his manic, mad episodes. It’s an excellently absurd telling of the contradictions of trying to justify the removal of books from a library. Well—this one is meaningful to me, so let’s ignore the rule for this one; or, this one established the genre, so let’s remove it’s ancestors but not the originator. The underlying idea here is that exposure to these tales and takes have caused the Quixote’s madness. Perhaps it’s precisely the opposite—and maybe this is Lukianoff and Haidt’s essential theme—removal of diverse viewpoints may have generated the madness we now encounter in the public sphere and across many institutions.