By Nelson Graves
Menacing. Predatory. Dangerous. Bad.
That’s how the wolf is depicted in many stories that parents read to their children in North America, Europe, and Asia. It’s part of our mythology.
So the managers of Yellowstone National Park in the United States were not afraid of controversy when in 1995 they reintroduced wolves to the mountainous preserve after a 70-year absence.
The managers could not foresee the sweeping changes the wolves would trigger. They knew wolves would kill elks grazing in the park’s valleys. That’s what wolves do, right? They kill.
But did they know that with the flight of the elks, trees would flourish in the valleys?
That by a remarkable ecological chain reaction, birds, beavers, otters, ducks, fish, bears and eagles would multiply?
That rivers would straighten because vegetation stabilized their banks?
In short, did park rangers know that wolves would change the rivers?
What in the world does the return of the wolves to Yellowstone have to do with learning?
It’s a tale of unexpected consequences. But it’s also a cautionary tale—to avoid falling victim to your own assumptions.
We all have biases. They are a product of our upbringing, culture, education and media. They are unavoidable—and mostly harmless in small doses.
But in an interconnected world, it’s important to suspend one’s assumptions and biases when confronting issues. Otherwise one risks rushing to judgment—and paying a high price later.
History is full of assumptions gone wrong. Napoléon and Hitler assumed their armies would win quick victories against Russian enemies.
Many Democratic voters in the United States woke up with a surprise in 2004 when the outcome of that year’s presidential election became clear.
Students today, perhaps more than ever, need to suspend their assumptions and hear the other side if they are to thrive—even survive—in a globalized context.
The opportunities to learn about other cultures have never been as plentiful as they are today—through travel, telecommunications and the Internet, which provides a prodigious tool for connecting with foreign lands, peoples and events.
But the volume of information has also grown exponentially, exposing young people to a stream of headlines, sound bites and images that capture news but which often lack the context to make sense of events.
Biases and prejudices can thrive in what I call the knowledge gap—the rift between exposure to shallow headlines and deep understanding of the underlying causes.
Exercise for Recognizing Perspectives in the News
Here’s a game for pulling the curtain back on assumptions and biases: Take a copy of a newspaper with international headlines. Pick a big story. Identify with the class some of the state or quasi-state actors that are involved, assign actors to groups of students, give them time to prepare, and then have them debate and discuss the issue, each group defending a perspective.
Actors: Poland, the European Union, the United States and Russia
Tip: To the extent possible, students should find official sources and read accounts from news media close to those sources. In this case, a student can learn about Russia’s views by visiting the Russian government’s website, Russia’s UN mission, its embassy in Washington or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Twitter feed. From there, the student can read Tass, Sputnik News, Russian Beyond, and Russia Today—all in English. Similarly, the views of the Polish government, Ukraine, the European Commission, the United States and NATO are all found quickly on the Internet. In many cases, there are Twitter feeds.
They should be encouraged to poke around and immerse themselves in other viewpoints. It’s the equivalent of reading the original work instead of relying on Sparks Notes.
Radically different perspectives
One of the wonderful things about the Internet is the access it provides to contrasting perspectives. In this case, students can quickly learn the views of policymakers in far-away countries. It’s similar to what foreign correspondents do when they attend press briefings or stake out officials from different countries at summits with the advantage that much of the foreign material on the Internet is translated into English and other languages. And lacking that, there is Google Translate.
When they come together to discuss Ukraine, students will realize they have radically different perspectives. While those representing Washington and Brussels might view Ukraine as an inevitable member of the EU and NATO, those in Moscow’s shoes could convey Russia’s strong historical attachment to Ukraine and the threat it senses from an encroaching EU and NATO.
This exercise can be repeated for any number of issues:
Example: the South China Sea
Actors: China, the Philippines and the United States
Example: climate change
Actors: India, the EU, the United States and Climate Action Network
The beauty of this exercise is that it leverages a skill most students have mastered (Internet research) while requiring them to eschew media organizations (secondary sources) they might normally turn to in favor of original sources with unfamiliar outlooks. It coaxes students out of their comfort zone.
Having a particular perspective is not necessarily bad. But it’s important to recognize that others might not share it. And to be able to put yourself in their shoes.
Things are not always as simple as they seem or as the media portrays them. And while wolves might bite, their impact on an eco-system is a lot more complex than “The Big, Bad Wolf.”