If Only

‘Stereotypes are dangerous not because they are wrong, but because they are incomplete.’

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s words, taken from her TED talk on the danger of single stories, reverberate around my brain. I begin to realize the grandeur of this statement. Single stories miss the essence of humanity, nay of life itself.

My perspective comes from that of a biologist. And looking at nature, I can tell you one thing: diversity is fundamental. How do I know? There are over 1000 species of jellyfish. And that’s just an example. If diversity wasn’t a good thing, it wouldn’t be here. That’s how natural selection works. In fact, the whole system would fall to pieces like a flimsy jigsaw puzzle on a bumpy car journey without it.

Thinking of these ideas in an academic context, diversity increases the quantity, and much more importantly, the quality of research output at all levels of focus (within a lab, within a department, within an institution). It’s not rocket science; you’re less likely to do something stupid if you have multiple perspectives assessing the problem at once. The single story in research is the recalcitrant professor who operates a ‘my way or the highway’ attitude towards collaboration.

The single story in teaching is the rigid syllabus, the standardized exams, the lectures that only appeal to certain types of learners et cetera. In this case, we often generalize out of pure laziness; it is a much more straightforward task to teach 30 clones than it is to teach 30 individuals and so we treat them as such. The convenience of viewing an audience as one however, does not justify the indirect result of denying people’s identities and alienating large swathes of the room. The fact that we have acknowledged the problem shows how far we have come; the fact that it is a problem show how far we have to go.

Diversity is one of the key constituents of life, and embracing diversity requires empathy and tact in equal measure. In her talk, Chimamanda also reminded me of my love for Rudyard Kipling, and thus it seems fitting to let him sum up:

‘If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
then you will be a Man, my son.’