The dearth of intellectual diversity plaguing America

In my lifetime, I’ve seen the internet go from a wild, unabashed landscape of anti-intellectualism, to a substantially larger, wild, unabashed landscape of anti-intellectualism. But no matter how out of control public discourse can seem, great things can happen when two sides come together to produce their best work. While the caricature of a close-minded person—one who huddles in a bunker muttering conspiracies under their breath—is funny, we often don’t acknowledge just how close we are to that picture ourselves, even if we look much saner doing it. But there’s an antidote: intellectual diversity.

True intellectual diversity requires four things: the willingness to pursue non-conformity, the acceptance and even encouragement of opposing views, the humility to accept criticism, and a wide-ranging global catalog of personal knowledge.

To produce raw, unfettered, and original ideas, you need to risk being wrong. Not just that, you need to risk being so wrong that your family and friends might consider you crazy. The United States Constitution was radical. While almost all of the ideas in the constitution had existed in some form throughout history prior to its creation, seeing a relatively wealthy, powerful nation form out of a collection of those ideas was unique and set a precedent for many other modern democracies. And, as we know, it made a few people mad.

Too many people think that being considerate means that you agree with everything your enemy says. That’s not true. What it means is that you respect their ability to preach and spread their message, even if you disagree with every single word that comes out of their mouth or what they type on their keyboard. Even if you hate someone’s message or ideology with vicious fury, don’t attempt to censor it. Rather, provide your counterargument. In the future you won’t be there to censor it, and rather than simply being influenced by your opponent’s message, people will remember your argument about why it’s wrong.

Clearly, there are types of misinformation that are harmful. Telling a blind person to run in the direction of a sinkhole is harmful even if it isn’t done out of malice. Whether you are at fault is a tricky call to make and is based on whether you reasonably knew there was a sinkhole. Ultimately, determining “reasonable” is subjective, but it’s the best system we’ve been able to come up with to determine something as weighty as guilt or innocence.

One of my favorite moments in Avatar: The Last Airbender is when Uncle Iroh says: “Prince Zuko, pride is not the opposite of shame, but its source. True humility is the only antidote to shame.” Having the humility to accept when you are wrong is paramount to a person’s character, regardless of age.

We teach kids that being wrong is bad, that it’s a complete devaluation of their character and intellect. But this teaching leads to adults doubling down on misinformed ideas instead of admitting fault. True humility gives way to balanced self-esteem: the knowledge that you are not worth less when you are wrong, and that you have the self-confidence to admit you’re wrong. In an intellectually diverse society, people point out wrongs frequently and kindly, and they are accepted graciously.

Lastly, and most importantly, I think American society needs to provide broader education for the youth. Civics is a subject that hasn’t been a required field of study in many states in recent years—a shame considering it’s something I believe children could really make use of because it teaches them about what it means to be a citizen of a country. I feel the same way about programs like the JROTC, which teaches essential skills like leadership, presentation, and discipline.

A lot of discourse in American classrooms feels very...myopic. I’ve found that my peers can’t recite the history of other nations around the globe, or talk about Thailand’s monarchy, the bloodthirsty India-Pakistan border dispute, Iceland’s unique geothermal power solutions, Rwanda’s bizarre gender equality, why an ideological divide in China following World War 2 led to the political creation of two distinct powers: the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China, the influence climate change will have on the Northwest Passage shipping route, or why Guam is still somehow part of the United States.

These are what I consider to be incredibly interesting topics, and over the past three years or so, I’ve gained much more socio-political knowledge from reading about seemingly unrelated geopolitical and historical topics than from listening to political gurus. 

Sometimes you see people say that the USA isn’t a country but rather 50 states in a union. I find that to be an interesting comparison with India, a country also using a similar state system. The concept of being American or Indian has no historic geographical grounding. Both India and America were just a collection of semi-independent states with diverse people ruled by different powers at varying times. Only in the modern era did these two countries unify and become two of the biggest and most important nations today.

Similarly, one can see parallels everywhere throughout countries, cultures, societies, borders, histories, peoples, arts, wars, trades, tragedies, and triumphs. It’s not enough to learn about American history; I believe each student in this country needs to learn the history of the world.

Although I made a joke about how the internet culture hasn’t seemed to change in the past 20 years, I do think it has a little. The same people making fun of and circulating gossip about Monica Lewinsky in 1998 are doing the same on Twitter and Facebook about today’s modern (sometimes accidental) public figures. That culture, which was sparked before I was born, has doubled down and cast itself in society’s zeitgeist. People yell a lot and listen little.

I believe that we can break this toxic culture though. In fact, let me end with the reason why I believe so much in education. My grandfather was a big believer in the power of education; his generation was the one that brought my family line out of poverty. During every visit to his home, he’d emphasize it and tell me a piece of trivia or a world fact. On a dreary morning in my sophomore year of high school, my dad drove my grandparents, brother, and I to school. The morning was very emotionally stressful, for reasons completely unrelated to this story, but my grandfather’s last words were: “Study hard, it’s important. You’ll do great.” That was the last time I saw either of my grandparents; our time together was over so quickly.

Maybe I’d like to have hugged them for a few seconds longer, but I’m glad my grandfather’s last words summed up his life of upholding education. The world needs people who will educate others and educate on education itself. It’s easy to parrot what your favorite personalities say online, or what your group says, but to truly acquire gold nuggets of intellectual diversity we need to unearth it with hands of positive determination, muscles made of a thirst for knowledge, and a backbone supported by one’s goodwill for the Earth. Then, and only then, will our thought and speech make true progress while sustaining prosperity.

[Editor’s Note]: Due to the current changing situation regarding the relationship between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China, the line referencing it has been modified to reflect a more historic view.