After a day-long strategic planning work session with my colleagues, I am reminded of the human challenge of working with (or against) our assumptions, and the importance of being aware that we have them.
One of my all-time favorite short stories is called How to Talk to a Hunter, from Pam Houston’s book of short stories titled Cowboys are My Weakness. In this story, the main character, a smart woman in love with a man who doesn’t love her back, states: “This is what you learned in graduate school: In every assumption is contained the possibility of its opposite.”
I know a person who lives by (and through) his assumptions, and he seems to be constantly disappointed. He will assume that a friend or family-member is going to do something in a particular way (for example, celebrate Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November, or celebrate Thanksgiving at all!), and if something is done differently, as it often is, he is crushed, and then he gets angry at that person for not acting as he thinks they should. (What do you mean you are going skiing on Thanksgiving this year instead of having a turkey dinner at 3:00 like we always do?) These are his assumptions, ruling his life, though he cannot name them as such.
As you can imagine, living by his assumptions causes a lot of pain for him and results in difficult relationships with his family members and friends. But what would happen if he allowed for “the possibility of its opposite?” There are all sorts of theories that account for this phenomenon, but in essence, it boils down to Houston’s idea: the possibility of its opposite exists, and it seems critical that we be aware of these possibilities, and even more critical that we open our minds to them.
Barnett discusses this in his book The Idea of Higher Education (1990) in a way that speaks to why I do the work I do:
“A genuine higher learning is subversive in the sense of subverting the student’s taken-for-granted world, including the world of endeavour [sic], scholarship, calculation or creativity, into which he or she has been initiated. A genuine higher education is unsettling; it is not meant to be a cosy [sic] experience. It is disturbing because, ultimately, the student comes to see that things could always be other than they are. A higher education experience is not complete unless the student realizes that, no matter how much effort is put in, or how much library research, there are no final answers” (p. 155).
So as my strategic planning team wrestles with our separate and collective assumptions about the university, its heritage, and how we have enacted the heritage in the past or should/could/would enact it in the next five years, I am gratefully reminded that we will do a better job if we can effectively name and challenge the assumptions that we have and if we can see that things can be other than they are. In my mind, this is one of the outcomes of a good college education; it seems imperative, therefore, that we walk our talk.