To Introduce Viewpoint Diversity, Ignite Curiosity

Amsterdam Museum
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A class of high school juniors go to the National Museum of the American Indian on a field trip. They start their tour of the museum by entering a room filled with artifacts once used by American Indians in different regions of the US. The artifacts are household materials like cooking utensils and weaving machines. The students meander through the room, reading the plaques affixed next to each object. Next, they enter a room filled with modern artwork. Adjacent to each painting or object is a description of what is depicted and what inspired the artist. 

These students, by imaginatively placing themselves in another culture as they learn about it, are engaging in perspective-taking. They are learning about the lives of people who are different from themselves. They are taking themselves out of their day-to-day routines to stand in the shoes of someone who has lived a life distinct from their own. Even if only for a moment, they are trying to understand how someone else views the world. Unfortunately, this is not what comes to mind when people talk about viewpoint diversity in education.

Headlines such as “Texas school leader suggests balancing Holocaust with ‘opposing’ views” misrepresent the aim of viewpoint diversity and make it seem like something to be avoided. But most of us routinely encounter a wide range of perspectives with little to no conflict. 

Some of us even seek out different points of view in our leisure. Like the high school students, we go to museums and listen to stories of people who lived through a historical event. We read novels that are set in a time and place that we have no connection to, but we enjoy them nonetheless. We travel to different regions and countries to visit cultural sites that will teach us about what life was like for past inhabitants and to learn about modern-day circumstances. There is even an entire field of study—anthropology—dedicated to learning about humanity and how those from various regions of the world live their lives. All of these things introduce us to new perspectives, new ways to view the world.

An overarching drive of this perspective-taking is curiosity. As Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein, both evolutionary biologists, put it: “We are born to explore the world around us, discover its secrets, and structure our minds accordingly.” It is through this lens of curiosity and desire to explore that we can best approach viewpoint diversity.

At some point, students need to grapple with thorny issues that have plagued and continue to plague society because, if not, as Ashley Berner, a historian of education, warns, avoiding these issues is “teaching young people something, too: that such questions are either unimportant or too divisive to discuss.” But if schools focus on igniting curiosity first, before wading into a discussion of more controversial issues, viewpoint diversity will seem more enlightening and less frightening, not a showdown between competing views.

John Tomasi, a philosopher and president of Heterodox Academy, describes curiosity as connective and joyful, and a curious learning environment is a place to enjoy intellectual adventures with one another. He declares, “When someone begins a sentence, ‘I wonder why…?’ it would take a hard heart indeed not to hear them asking, ‘Could you help me understand how…?’ or, ‘Shall we think about this together?’” These questions invite individuals to explore a common intellectual pursuit in partnership with others, not play tug-of-war to determine a winner.

Curiosity for the sake of learning, according to Jason Baehr, a philosopher, must be nurtured, shaped, and cultivated. Students don’t necessarily show up to class ready to direct their curiosity towards an intellectual goal. But once they learn how to ask questions that are thoughtful and insightful, they will be prepared to uncover a range of viewpoints, understand those perspectives, and challenge them in ways that are constructive. In this sense, what begins as initial curiosity becomes questions that lead to knowledge acquisition and to innovation and problem-solving.

To be sure, curiosity is not the end-all-be-all to successfully embracing viewpoint diversity in a classroom or school, especially when it comes to more hot button issues. Even so, we are all curious by nature and so it’s a place to start.

One of the most beloved children’s books is the Adventures of Alice in Wonderland. Alice falls into a world that is foreign and completely different from her own, but she must learn how to navigate it. The story of how she does so is exciting and full of enchanting characters. Certainly, some perspectives have had terrible consequences and students need to be aware of them, but by harnessing curiosity to embrace viewpoint diversity students may come to view the world as Alice did, as a place filled with wonder and interesting people with fascinating experiences and perspectives to learn from.

Samantha Hedges
Samantha Hedges is the K-12 Program Manager at Heterodox Academy, a nonpartisan collaborative of more than 5,000 professors, educators, administrators, staff, and students committed to enhancing the quality of research and education by promoting open inquiry, viewpoint diversity and constructive disagreement.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chalkboard Review team.

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