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How primary source content can help students, researchers and the rest of us benefit from “the wisdom of strangers”

By Courtney Suciu

What is it about “other” people that make us so uncomfortable? Why do we avoid people who aren’t like us? How does opening ourselves to diverse perspectives promote better learning and insights?

These are some of the questions linguist, author and Dean of Arts and Sciences at Bentley University Daniel Everett considered in his article “Seek Out Strangers: The Less Comfortable We Are, the More We Learn” in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

“We often limit our contact with strangers — the less another person is like us, the less we desire to know that person,” he wrote.

However, Everett continued, “it is harder to learn things from people like ourselves — say, someone who grew up with us in our neighborhood, from our ethnic background and our gender,” he pointed out. “We already know most of what each other knows.”

“If we already know the information we are receiving…we have not mentally expanded,” he explained. Learning, Everett continued, occurs when we are exposed to “a diversity of intellectual and cultural experiences” and “new people unlike ourselves.”

In other words, we learn when we are exposed to what he calls “the wisdom of strangers.”

“Diversity is the heart of success because it is the heart of learning,” he wrote; but “learning requires more than mere exposure to difference.”

Ideally, according to Everett, all people would live for at least a week among strangers who are unlike them – people who live according to customs, values and experiences that are unfamiliar, or even in conflict, with their own.

He made the case that this is how young children learn. The world is alien to them and their brains are constantly adapting to accommodate new information and experiences. Then, after the early “critical years,” Everett noted, “our capacity for learning from newness is reduced, requiring greater effort to expand our mind.”

This means the onus is on us to seek out diverse perspectives for our own growth. It also means that as educators and information providers, it is our responsibility to provide access to diverse perspectives for the growth of our students and researchers.

While we would maybe benefit if we could all live for a week among strangers and learn from their “other” ways, that might not be realistic for many of us or our students. But, when it comes to “the wisdom of strangers,” perhaps primary sources are the next best thing.

Original materials such as personal correspondence, organizational reports, testimonies, diaries, photos, government records, speeches, newspapers and legal documents can immerse students and researchers in unfamiliar ways of thinking, introduce different perspectives and challenge preconceived ideas to promote better learning and insights.

5 ways primary sources inspire learning from diverse perspectives

  1. Learn from those who have been historically marginalized, including enslaved people, LGBT people, ethnic minorities, indigenous populations and immigrants by researching firsthand accounts of their thoughts, efforts, experiences and accomplishments.
  2. Gain a more intimate understanding of how issues such as climate change, immigration, terrorism, poverty and mass incarceration impact individual human lives and whole cultures around the world.
  3. Confront personal biases and hone analytical skills by considering multiple, often contradictory points of view of historical events, global issues and social/political/religious influences.
  4. Explore context for insight into how human rights abuses such as genocide, slavery and the oppression of minorities have been systemized through propaganda, coercion and legislation.
  5. Uncover evidence to trace how activists for civil, labor, immigrant, LGBT and women’s rights have impacted and influenced public policy, the law and social norms over the span of decades.

Learn more about ProQuest primary sources or request a trial of these selected resources using promo code DIVERSITYBLOG: 
History Vault: Explore issues related to immigration, women's studies, Black freedom and civil rights and indigenous peoples.
LGBT Magazine Archive: Browse 27 key titles from the 1950s to 2015, encompassing issues in health, lifestyle, politics, art, activism and more.
LGBT Thought & Culture: Take a unique look into LGBT life from the late 19th to early 21st centuries with rare archival content, including letters, periodicals, speeches, interviews and ephemera.
Global Issues Library: Put today's events in historical context, including border migrations, human rights violations, security, protests and environmental issues. 
Twentieth Century Religious Thought Library: Enlighten minds with views from more than 200 leading thinkers and writers beyond religious studies.
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Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu

11 Jun 2019

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