This I Believe: Common reading experience antidote to silo syndrome?


The world is tearing itself up because of one thing, and that is belief. The idea is that rather than screaming about it, we ought to just listen. . . . It rather idealistically and rather quietly suggests another way to talk to each other.”

– Jay Allison, Series Host and Co-Producer of NPR’s This I Believe

In 2008, Northern Illinois University joined the ranks of schools like Bowling Green, UNC Chapel Hill, and Purdue in offering its students, faculty, staff and community the prospect of unity through literature: it instituted a common reading experience (previous reads at NIU included Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture; while the “Huskies” read short essays penned by celebrities, scholars, and everyday people about their beliefs, Purdue will be reading the comparatively intense The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, and UNC, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals).

Just last week, I wrote in response to Mike Rose’s latest article in Journal of Higher Ed, a serious examination of the flaws of the university system’s approach to remedial education.  He writes:

“Most of us are trained and live our professional lives in disciplinary silos…If we hope to really do something transformational with remediation, we’ll need all the wisdom we can garner, from multiple disciplines and multiple methodologies, from multiple lines of sight.”

Is a common reading experience the antidote to such isolationism?  The answer, I think, lies not in the program itself, but in the quality of its execution.

Like many educational websites (this one included!) NPR offers a series of lesson plans for use in classrooms from middle school to university level; experience has taught many of us that these lesson plans are often only as good as the teacher–or, preferably, team of teachers–using them to drive inquiry and insight in the classroom.

Jay Allison, host of both “This I Believe” (the auditory component) and “All Things Considered,” observes something more poignant in this collection of essays.  He stands in the shadow of the unparalleled broadcaster Edward R. Murrow, who founded the radio program of 500-word spoken personal philosophies to speak peace, understanding, truth, and reconciliation in the face of McCarthyism, the Cold War, and simmering racial divides.

Sixty years later, the Cold War has ended.

McCarthy has been taken off his throne (whether he’s been replaced by similar despots is a debate for another time and place).

The explosive protests of the Civil Rights Movement have cooled into acute, yet simmering, segregation.

For the most part, digital has supplanted radio as the medium of exchange.

But, in its own way, the world of 2011 parallels the world that Murrow faced when he began his reconciliatory endeavor.  In the preface to the first printed collection of radio essays, in 1951, Murrow, writing from his own time and place, prophesied our own contemporary troubles with astounding accuracy:

We hardly need to be reminded that we are living in an age of confusion—a lot of us have traded in our beliefs for bitterness and cynicism or for a heavy package of despair, or even a quivering portion of hysteria. Opinions can be picked up cheap in the market place while such commodities as courage and fortitude and faith are in alarmingly short supply.

Sixty years later, we consider ourselves too advanced for the quaint stories of a bygone era.  But maybe Story is just what will heal us.  Later in the same preface, Murrow observed the following:

In talking to people, in listening to them, I have come to realize that I don’t have a monopoly on the world’s problems. Others have their share, often far bigger than mine. This has helped me to see my own in truer perspective: and in learning how others have faced their problems—this has given me fresh ideas about how to tackle mine.

Can the power of Story really heal 21st century woes?

Is the answer, as Jay Allison suggests, to “just listen”?

And if story, if listening, is the answer, what recommendations do you have for how NIU should teach, handle, and share this text?