I started this school year, once again, by asking my students to watch Chimamanda Adichie’s excellent TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story.” As I’ve written before, the talk prompts students to consider the value of seeking to understand other people’s stories on their terms and to avoid the reductive simplicity of what Adichie refers to as “single stories.”
Adichie’s talk also opens up conversations about stereotypes. In her formulation, stereotypes are dangerous not because they are inherently wrong, but because they are incomplete. She challenges us to confront the way that a single story, perpetuated by those in power, can become a dominant story. And she encourages us, like good historians, to seek a more varied, more complex set of stories. This approach aligns well with the well-loved pedagogical strategy of teaching from “multiple perspectives.” I have used Adichie’s talk in my class for years: I even have a “single story alert” sign in my classroom to serve as a visual reminder of our duty to tell multiple stories.
This year, the discussion proceeded along familiar lines. Students were captivated by Adichie’s storytelling and amused by her anecdotes, even as they understood the gravity of her message. One student observed that she felt Adichie was challenging us “to be less complacent” while another felt called “to push deeper past what we think we know about other people.” They saw how using primary sources can help us resist single stories and how the continued acquisition of knowledge can prevent single stories from becoming dominant stories. After I explained that we would start the year with African history, in part because it’s the topic about which students tend to have the most preconceptions and the least actual knowledge, they even committed to being open to questioning their own “single stories” about the continent.
In previous years, I might have been content to let the conversation end here. This year, however, I knew I had to push further, to begin delineating the boundaries of our discourse, to draw a bright line between the events in Charlottesville, our learning about the world, and our values. I felt even more urgency to push students past the idea that just telling multiple stories is the antidote to the danger of a single story (which, to be clear, is not the only point of Adichie’s talk). After a summer of “alt-right” protests, tiki torches and assertions that there were “good people” standing with signs emblazoned with swastikas and white power slogans, it was critical early in the year to go further.
I questioned the ease of avoiding single stories by, in my students’ words, “telling multiple stories.” Together, we considered whether it is possible to tell all the stories of a specific place or group. If not, how would we decide which to tell? Wouldn’t our decision-making reveal our assumptions and biases, both by what we include and what we exclude? With limited time and space, what criteria should we use to determine which stories we include? These conversations are the wellspring of genuine historical thinking. Wading into them allows students to see that history, far from being a fixed account of the accumulated events of the past, is an argument about whose stories matter and why.
Avoiding this argument gives way to the “both sides” story. No less problematic than the one Adichie identifies, it is the trap of promoting false equivalence, sometimes referred to as “whataboutism.” It means creating a false comparison between two (or more) contradictory sides, and it is a time-tested tactic of those looking to undermine debate and discussion or to elevate previously “out of bounds” ideas. It lurks, for example, in debates over Confederate monuments and the causes of the Civil War. The so-called “alt-right,” recently profiled in Teaching Tolerance magazine, often traffics in exactly this sort of ethical muddying. As that article argued, “teachers can undercut [alt-right] propaganda by teaching about the struggles faced by the marginalized groups the alt-right often targets.” In other words, we answer the danger of a single story not just by telling multiple stories, but by amplifying the voices of the oppressed and marginalized—by telling stories that push back against the stories we think we know.
This turn in our classroom discussion frustrated students, who were drawn to the simplicity of combating single stories with multiple stories. They weren’t sure how to deal with questions about how we decide which stories to include and how we avoid promoting false equivalence. But their discomfort could not excuse us from this conversation.
In the current climate, teachers need to be clearer about how and why we make the choices we do, about whose stories matter and why, and about the values we use to make those judgments. Adichie herself said it best: “Now is the time to talk about what we are actually talking about.”
Gold is a seventh- and eighth-grade history teacher at Moses Brown School in Providence, Rhode Island. You can reach him on Twitter @jonathansgold.