TROUTMAN: Lessons from where you don’t fit in


As I stretch at the trailhead before my morning jog, I’m keenly aware of the drone of periodic cicadas. These insects form a sound wall, which is created by hundreds or even thousands making the same noise.

Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University, recently wrote in the New York Times that the best college choice is “one where you don’t fit in.” His argument is that many students select an institution of higher learning that they feel aligns with their ideologies—where people essentially say the same thing. This brought to mind an ancient story about the dangers of uniformity.

According to Genesis 11, there was once a single language among all people. People then began to collaborate to build a tower to reach the heavens. This may seem like the ideal progression of human achievement, yet God, the creator of heaven and earth, introduced a diversity of languages among the people, which resulted in the abandonment of the celestial building project.

Wait a minute. Isn't there strength in numbers? Don’t we want to work together to reach for the stars? Genesis 11 is often preached to teach against idolatry or replacing the divine with an object of human creation.

Yet, thinking about Roth’s argument, perhaps another pressing moral for our time is to push us to learn from diversity. Roth argues: “The most rewarding forms of education make you feel very uncomfortable, not least because they force you to recognize your own ignorance.”

Trying to communicate with someone who speaks another language will make you aware of what you do not know. It’s likely that a conversation with a person of a different political stripe will cause blood pressure to rise. I’m not naive; I doubt that most people will change their minds.

However, rather than lapsing into name-calling or shutting down the debate by changing the subject, what might we learn from the process?

What if we took an honest look at our own conversation partners? Are you, in effect, building a tower by surrounding yourself with the same ideas? Are you fitting in with your own drone of opinions? Isn’t it the sound walls that are actually keeping us apart?

The periodic cicadas will be heard for only a couple of more weeks, but the issues that divide Americans are not going anywhere, especially in an election year. Freedom of speech is certainly a hot-button issue on college campuses. Now is the time to push out of our comfort zones. Robert Frost said: “Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.” I would say the same about a mature religious faith.

Andrew Taylor-Troutman is pastor of Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church as well as a writer, pizza maker, coffee drinker and student of joy.