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“The Danger of a Single Story” (Part One)

September 16, 2010

Thank goodness for TED Talks – the amazing collection of great (and short) talks and presentations by luminaries in various fields.  The one I’m still pondering after watching it four times this week is called “The Danger of a Single Story,” delivered last year by novelist Chimamanda Adichie.  She argues for the importance of literature, the power of narratives, and the risks of perpetuating or accepting a steady stream of non-varied stories that distort their subject matter.  If you have eighteen minutes to spare, this speech is a gem.

If you don’t have eighteen minutes to spare, or if you’ve seen the speech already, here’s a sampling, with some commentary and reflections regarding the “single story” in education reporting and debates.

“I come from a conventional, middle-class Nigerian family. My father was a professor. My mother was an administrator. And so we had, as was the norm, live-in domestic help, who would often come from nearby rural villages. So the year I turned eight we got a new house boy. His name was Fide. The only thing my mother told us about him was that his family was very poor. My mother sent yams and rice, and our old clothes, to his family. And when I didn’t finish my dinner my mother would say, “Finish your food! Don’t you know? People like Fide’s family have nothing.” So I felt enormous pity for Fide’s family.

“Then one Saturday we went to his village to visit. And his mother showed us a beautifully patterned basket, made of dyed raffia, that his brother had made. I was startled. It had not occurred to me that anybody in his family could actually make something. All I had heard about them is how poor they were, so that it had become impossible for me to see them as anything else but poor. Their poverty was my single story of them.”

Now, I’m going to exaggerate – but only slightly – in suggesting that the “single story” about American education right now goes like this: our wholly inadequate public school system is in crisis, staffed by barely-competent teachers who count on their lifetime tenure to shield them from accountability as they sit in dropout factories and preside over classes of uninspired students who are being surpassed in every way by the rest of the world.  But there is hope!  Armed with national standards, bolstered by reams of data, declining tenure and embracing merit pay, TFA interns will work 80 hour weeks at charter schools serving voucher-carrying kids – and save the day!  We don’t have to keep waiting for Superman forever!

But as Adichie points out, when you have a single story, other information doesn’t seem to fit.  If schools are failing and American students are falling behind, then success stories make no sense.

“Years later, I thought about this when I left Nigeria to go to university in the United States. I was 19. My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listed to what she called my “tribal music,” and was consequently very dissapointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. (Laughter) She assumed that I did not know how to use a stove.

“What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning, pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa. A single story of catastrophe. In this single story there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her, in any way. No possibility of feelings more complex than pity. No possibility of a connection as human equals.”

Doesn’t it seem to be the case these days that many in the American public, aided by a largely sedentary news media, seem to have a “default position” towards public schools.  In the 2010 PDK/Gallup poll about American education, most respondents had positive feelings about the public schools they know from personal experience, but negative feelings as a default when asked about the general state of public education.  They almost seem to see “a single story of catastrophe” – even when personal experience should be complicating that vision.

Time Magazine seems to be willing to help oversimplify what should be a complex picture.  Their recent education survey seems seriously biased in its conception and wording, (see Jim Horn on one particular item, but most of the questions are patently skewed).  And that would be bad enough, but Matthew Di Carlo at the Shanker Blog shows how Time seems to have omitted and manipulated some of the raw results when they went to report on the survey.  One has to wonder when the mainstream media decided that the one story about public education was negative.

Now, at the risk of painting with broad brush strokes and seeming to offer my own single story, I should add that some reporters and media outlets are covering the stories with greater balance and depth.  The Christian Science Monitor comes to mind for solid reporting on performance pay, and on teacher-led schools.  Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post consistently presents perspectives that seem the most informed by research and classroom expertise.  The News Hour on PBS deserves credit for following stories in depth and over an extended period of time, though a sad consequence of some fine reporting by John Merrow has been to narrow the national discussion and bring us closer to that single story – with Washington, D.C. and New Orleans serving as the settings: a tale of two cities.

“Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story, and to start with, “secondly.” Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have and entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.”

And if you want to tell the story of the failing American school, start in the present time; start with the problem, and sell the story of how to solve it.  Ignore the people who understand the problem, who remember what it was like before that problem existed, or before that problem was defined to fit the one story.  Start the story at a time when our country leads its peers in childhood poverty rates and malnutrition, when struggling schools just trying to raise test scores, and teachers fight for the status quo by resisting scripted curriculum and standardization, and cling to undeserved job protections.  Of course, in that story, it doesn’t occur to the storyteller or the audience to ask how this shameful poverty rate came into being, or how it affects students and schools.  There’s no need to recall a time when standardized tests played a smaller role in our lives (and somehow, we survived!).  There’s no discussion about why “tenure” exists in the first place, and indeed, no real effort to define the term (“Tenure is a guarantee of due process for a tenured teacher facing dismissal charges. Tenure is not a guarantee of a teaching job for life.” –  No need to actually compare education systems with and without unions to see if unionism actually hurts schools or not.

Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize.Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.

In Part Two of this blog post, I offer some California stories intended to break the grip of the single story.  If you have some suggestions, add them in the comments below.

23 Comments leave one →
  1. September 16, 2010 4:27 am

    Flat-out brilliant. Thanks, David. Well-considered and well-written–and well worth re-posting, again and again.

  2. September 16, 2010 8:05 am

    I agree with Nancy; great post. Needs to be read by everyone, especially people in DC.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      September 18, 2010 3:37 pm

      Thanks Nancy and Tom – always glad to see you’ve stopped by InterACT!

  3. Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez permalink
    September 16, 2010 10:27 pm

    Thanks so much for sharing – this was certainly powerful! I could watch TED videos all day.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      September 18, 2010 3:40 pm

      Hi Sarah – yes, quite a resource! And one of the bonuses of teaching older students is using TED talks in school. I showed this video to my freshmen as we prepared for our first major unit of literary study, in hopes of instilling a sense of purpose. I can’t say for sure that all my students really got it, but many of them did, and they were all interested and attentive. As the year goes on, I’m expecting they’ll be increasingly competent in those types of discussions.

      • Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez permalink
        September 19, 2010 2:52 pm

        I love your idea about using these video segments in your classroom. I’m going to try it out in my room tomorrow, using this clip:

        It’s not as deep, but we’ll see if it can invoke some meaningful discussion on leadership with my fifth graders.

        Thanks for the idea!

  4. Scott Burnam permalink
    September 18, 2010 3:15 pm

    Happened upon this and only wish I hadn’t begun tweeting so recently as to only have a couple of followers. Thank you for this wonderfully adaptive insight.

  5. December 9, 2010 5:18 pm

    You made me feel proud to say I am an Ibo man. I like like the citical thinking involved. We critical thinkers are pondering over questions to keep this article going. I will search for the second part b/4 I make comment

  6. Nnena permalink
    February 8, 2011 1:14 pm

    It is great to see that Ngozi Adichie continues to echo Africa’s literary giant Chinua Achebe’s positions on literary issues. I recall this very topic developed more fully in Achebe’s Home and Exile. It would have been nice if she had done some more research and taken this same argument a little further.

  7. Gill permalink
    November 13, 2011 12:27 pm

    I had seen this talk by Adichie a while back. I was absolutely touched by it. Infact I have started a community inspired by her talk that aims at breaking stereotypes based on race, religion or nationality. If anyone of you will like to join the community please feel free to do so. Lets contribute together and find a way to tackle this complex issue. Here is a link to the community. Feel free to join.


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