The Beauty of Being an Outsider
As we witness the rollout of vaccines, I find myself thinking about all of the different types of knowledge that are needed to implement this process. There is, most obviously, the science that goes into developing a vaccine. But there is also the need for communication and education in helping people to understand how the vaccine works, and ensure that they are still taking precautions even after they get their vaccine. Computer programmers were needed to develop the registration systems as well as the apps that are being used to track the spread of the virus. Translators worked to ensure that correct information was given out in multiple languages, organizational systems analysts worked to create a system for distribution of the vaccine across the world. I am slightly in awe of the diversity of perspectives and types of knowledge that were required to move us from a global pandemic to beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel.
In his book Stretch: Unlock the power of less – and achieve more than you ever imagined, Scott Sonenshein cites a study done with InnoCentive, a company that uses crowdsourcing to solve some of the world’s most challenging problems. In analyzing the data submitted by 26 scientific labs around the world on 166 global problems, the researchers looked to see if those who were experts in the field of the problem would naturally be the most likely to solve them. This would seem to be common sense, but surprisingly, that was not the case.
Quite the opposite happened – there was a correlation between how FAR away the problem was from someone’s area of expertise to their ability to solve it. Erik Dane calls this being “cognitively entrenched,” which happens as you become an expert in any field. Because each field has an approach or way of doing or thinking about things, this can become a liability and prevent people from approaching problems in different ways. We see this happen in small ways all the time – we know that a chair is for sitting in and a pot is used for cooking. However, anyone around small children will see them easily see the chair as a resource to make a fort, and a pot as a fabulous music-maker. We become less able to see things in ways outside of their normal use the more engrained this use is in our brains. For this reason, being an outsider can be an amazing advantage.
What does this mean for higher education?
In general, universities are set up to have students declare their majors as early as possible and then focus on all of the requirements of that major. There are valid reasons for this – taking more than a few classes that don’t count toward graduation can cost money and time. Universities are also set up to group like minds together – departments are grouped into divisions or colleges such as the Natural Sciences, Humanities, Social Sciences, Business, Agriculture and Hawaiian. But I would suggest that this might not be the best path forward. Yes, scientists can support one another as they work in labs, and those who are committed to similar goals such as language revitalization should work collaboratively. However, if the above is true and if a good part of our jobs as educators is to help students develop problem-solving skills, then providing opportunities for them to work with others from diverse backgrounds, areas of expertise and world views would be an essential kuleana of universities.
When I was working with a class creating a health promotion campaign about vaping, the students commented on how valuable it was to have both students from Hawaii and from other places on their teams to see different approaches to things, to have different views of culture, family & kuleana. Some of the students were majoring in health-related fields, but those coming from psychology, communication, education, computer science and others all brought something that was helpful to the project.
We live in a world that has created a hierarchy of knowledge, with science ranking more highly than the humanities or social sciences. And yet… today’s challenges are far beyond the expertise of one field. We need all of them, and the beautiful chaos of overlapping, understanding, and linking fields, to even begin to tackle climate change, social justice, and the pandemic. Because of this, we need to encourage our kids to explore and create a breadth of knowledge that will allow them to think in different ways to envision possible solutions to today’s most challenging problems.
Year ago I remember hearing the parable of the long spoons. A man enters a room in which there is a large, round table filled with mouth-watering food. However, the people around the table are sickly and horrifyingly thin. They have spoons with which to eat, but the spoons are so long that they cannot use them to get the food into their mouths. The man then enters a second room, which also has a large, round table with the delicious smells of food. Although the people held the same long-handled spoons, they were joyful and well-fed. In this second room people had chosen to feed one another instead of themselves.
I would encourage all of us in higher education (and beyond) to invite those furthest away from our own perspectives and areas of expertise, to collaborate on the most difficult problems in our fields. Learn from them. Let them feed us.
Sonenshein, S. (2017). Stretch: Unlock the power of less – and achieve more than you ever imagined. HarperCollins Publishers: New York, NY.