Video: Education and the Danger of the Single Story

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In the video below, novelist Chimamanda Adichie tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice — and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.

Note: A transcript of this talk is available at the Ted video page.

Not only is Chimamanda Adichie hilarious, she makes a hugely important point about how we look at the narratives of non-Western people. How many times have you heard about someone doing volunteer work in “Africa” or how someone speaks “Chinese?” It’s easy to view people from the Global South as one monolithic group of “poor people,” or “people who need our help,” and yet the reality is vastly more nuanced, dynamic, and beautiful.

The single story is something I struggle with in my educational philosophy, as well in my academic work. I’ve shown this video to several of my social studies classes, and find many elements of my pedagogy reflected in Adichie’s talk. But I also worry that by neglecting the single story, or the traditional narrative, I’m doing my students a disservice. I remember a class I took in college, on the history of India. The class focused heavily on critiquing the traditional narrative of Indian history. The problem was, none of my classmates nor I knew anything about the traditional narrative. We were rebelling against something we had no idea of.

Is there a middle ground? Can we teach something other than the Single Story, especially in a world where most students are subjected to high-stakes tests that reward the students who learn the story and punish the students who question it? One solution I’ve found is to teach the Single Story (i.e. the textbook version) and then debunk and dismantle it with primary sources. But still, the Single Story is deeply seductive. It allows us exert minimum effort for maximum “knowledge:” we read one story and know the lives of millions of diverse people.

Our deep belief in the Single Story is what led to “Kony 2012” going viral, generations of parents reminding their kids of “starving children in Africa,” and the otherization and exocitization of people from the Global South. The real stories of people are mundane, glorious, tragic, and inspiring, if only we begin to acknowledge their existence.

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One Comment

  1. Posted October 17, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    Not having a device that supports flash, I can’t see the video, but the point about speaking “Chinese” is an interesting one, as even if one assumes an environment with a great diversity of spoken “dialects” (and yes, many of them are further flung than what are called languages in other circumstances), there is a lot of cultural mythology* about a unified Chinese language, usually expressed in terms of the written language.

    And meanwhile, putonghua is becoming increasingly dominant. (From the standpoint of this overgrown white girl, shockingly quickly. It used to be that the majority of the time when I came across Chinese speakers we had pretty limited common language, though I can understand a bit – and speak less – of Guangdonghua in a pinch. These days almost everyone seems to speak putonghua, and I don’t even get teased about my Beijing accent very much.)

    * By mythology I am not meaning to indicate something that isn’t true, but more a cherished set of ideas.

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