The Danger of a Single Story

In World Cultures class, we are grappling with the complicated history of the Middle East. We’ve been looking at the history from as many lens as possible- creating drawings, spinning analogies, organizing information. Students are thinking hard AND synthesizing difficult information. Occasionally, a student will pop up, “So, it’s all about oil, right?” or “The Europeans are the bad guys, right?” I can tell they’re hungry for my assent. “Yes, that it is,” they want me to say. Much as I would like to offer them some certainty, some neatness of narrative, I cannot. I find myself continuing to say, “That’s part of the reason” or “That’s one way to tell the story.”

This afternoon I came across an incredible TED talk by Chimamanda Adichie, a Nigerian author. She speaks eloquently about our tendency to flatten human experience and our impressions of a people into a single story. She shares experiences in which she either was surprised when people did not conform to the single story in which she imagined them or when she herself was expected to be a character in a single story.

The thing that I appreciated the most about the talk is that Adichie refuses to fall into the trap of saying we all have the same story. The problem with stereotypes, she argues, “is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” We should not try to cover over the difficult stories of history or literature, but we should tell them alongside of other stories.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Earlier today Carol Jago asked on the English Companion Ning, “Why do you teach literature?” I immediately thought of Jeff Wilhelm’s characterization of literature in his NCTE presentation as “imaginative rehearsal for living.” He quoted Wayne Booth who argued that by tracing characters’ efforts to make moral choices, “readers stretch our own capacities for thinking about how life should be lived.” By living stories through the lives of the characters we read, we broaden and contextualize our range of stories, reducing the chances that we will pigeonhole the people we encounter into single stories.

Towards the end of her talk Adichie says, “Stories matter. Many stories matter…. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but they can also restore the dignity of a people.” That’s why I teach literature (and history). I believe in the power of stories, and I want my students to know as many of them as they can.

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3 thoughts on “The Danger of a Single Story

  1. This is a very thoughtful post and I love that you are stretching the minds of such young students! So often, students are never pushed to think for themselves before college. They are SO lucky to have you! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Thank you for sharing this along with your own reflections. It reminds me of a lecture I once heard on the concept we have of “evil.” Often, when we think of someone or something as evil, we have an incomplete understanding of it. We need a label to understand it. Stereotypes help us do that.

  3. I second that thanks! I remember Wilhelm’s presentation – I’m to find different ways to explain and show this to my students as we progress through the year. Also, what a wonderful video! I appreciate your thoughtful response 🙂

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