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Perspectives on us

January 2, 2008

My idea of a really gifted social inquirer is Studs Terkel. This isn’t because Studs is a methodologist with a research plan and a falsifiable hypothesis, a dependent variable to track and a research strategy on a bunch of independent variables. It is because he is a voracious listener — he is interested in people, and he is aware that every person’s story has the potential for breaking new ground on his own understanding of how our society works. And he uses an active, sympathetic intelligence as his research tool, to draw out of his ordinary people the most amazing insights into how they’ve experienced their lives — as service workers, as civil rights activists, as policemen and women. What Studs finds is the great breadth and depth of human experience, human histories, and human coping, embedded in the thoughts and life moments of ordinary people. And he sheds a bright light on how varied human experience is — even in the same city (Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco). It’s a little bit like the way that the early biologist van Leeuwenhoek described his amazement in the 1660s at looking through a microscope at clear water, and seeing thousands of tiny organisms. Terkel discovers nuance, variety, and drama, in the most ordinary and apparently mundane experiences of ordinary people. (Studs has just published a memoir that is well worth reading — Touch and Go: A Memoir.)

But there is an insight in this for all of us. We can each learn from Studs’ ability to connect with the most varied group of people. Most of us live our lives in deliberately familiar circumstances. We talk to the people we know (often about pretty trivial things). We visit the places we’re comfortable with. And we recreate a pretty repetitive and stereotyped world of experience for ourselves. When we think about people in other circumstances than ours — for example, the Egyptian cabdriver who takes us to LaGuardia — we fall back on stereotypes about the other person rather than extending our own understanding of the complexities of the world around us. (Why is this man, trained as an engineer in Cairo driving a cab in New York? What circumstances in Egypt led to his emigration? How does he experience New York? What does he think of Fifth Avenue? Does he have healthcare? What does he want next in his life?)

There is a connection between this fact about our customary narrowness and “stereotyped social knowing” and the educational importance of diversity. The idea is that when universities succeed in recruiting a diverse student body, there is a greater chance that students will get to know each other better and more deeply, and will come to have more knowledge — and a more active desire for knowledge — about the life experiences and perspectives of others. So racial, religious, ethnic, sexual, or age diversity in a university community is a crucial component of the social learning, the cultural cognition, that we want young people to acquire. By living, working, and learning together young people are in a better position to see the world more fully and to understand each other more deeply.

Of course this theory doesn’t work as well in practice as in theory. Young people still have the choice of self-segregating and confining themselves to the familiar. So it is important for faculty and university leaders to create the situations on a campus that break down the barriers. (It is often observed that theater programs and geology departments often have the best success in engaging students across racial or ethnic lines. And a plausible theory of why this is so is that both programs involve extensive group work, field trips, and team cooperation.)

But there are other mechanisms for creating a broader social knowledge as well. For example, programs of national service like AmeriCorps and CityYear can give young people a deep and transforming experience of relationships across class and race lines — and the cross-culture learning that takes place there seems to be more profound. Could a mandatory year of national service be a viable mechanism for breaking down the forms of separation and mutual misunderstanding that we find in our society?

Another avenue that is available to all of us is the national oral history project called “The Story Corps.” (Portions are played on National Public Radio and the archives are maintained at the Library of Congress.) This is a different kind of oral history project — ordinary people talking about a single incident or moment in their lives. By listening to a number of these stories, you can get a much greater appreciation of the richness of experience that the diversity of our society represents — and the depth of insights that ordinary people bring to interpreting their experiences.

But back to Studs Terkel. What does he have that most of us lack? Mostly it is the curiosity to get a real understanding of the other person’s microcosm, and the courage to engage in the conversation. These are things we all can learn — and our understanding of the multiple social worlds we inhabit will be much the richer for it. So I for one want to go out of my way to connect better with people in ordinary social contact, in a way that lets me get a little bit better idea of how they experience their lives and what singular features of experience their worlds contain.

(Some of Studs’ best work is found in Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do and Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression. But to really get a feeling for his mind, you need to hear some of his radio work.)

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