9 Two are better than one,
because they have a good return for their labor:
10 If either of them falls down,
one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
and has no one to help them up.
11 Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
But how can one keep warm alone?
12 Though one may be overpowered,
two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.
Two heads are better than one.
There’s an old saw to the effect that “if you have one lawyer in town, he starves to death. But as soon as the second lawyer arrives, there’s more than enough business for everybody!”
This works in mathematics as well. My father, early in his career, was a professor of mathematics at the University of the South, in Sewanee, Tennessee. The chair of the mathematics department at that time was a remarkable individual with a wondrous name, one Gaston Swindell Bruton. The link on Bruton notes that in the first twenty years of his tenure he taught only one undergraduate who went on to get a Ph.D. in mathematics. However, the class of 1949 produced two such students (and when the first of these came back to Sewanee to join the faculty, the school produced a bunch). The link history also suggests that this 1949 uptick might have been due to the arrival a couple of years earlier of my father – that at last Dr. Bruton could “talk shop” with someone, and that their mutual stimulation infected their teaching and energized the students.
Marriage also works this way. My wife and I have always had a good marriage but it got even better when we moved from Boulder where we’d lived for the first eleven years to our current home near DC. The biggest factor? About that same time we came to realize that our differences were a strength to build on rather than a weakness to overcome. We looked back over big and small decisions we made and found that some of our most important and best choices emerged from instances where we disagreed initially but talked things through. By contrast, some of our worst decisions arose out of circumstances when we agreed from the get-go. We’d had the same blindspot! We came to develop a new and deeper appreciation for each other’s point of view.
So here’s the reality. You and I, left to our own devices, are not slightly mistake-prone. It’s closer to the truth to say we’re ridiculously so. We lack judgment! Criticism, outside perspective, reality checks? It’s not that we could do with a little more of this. Our need is rather more desperate.
The National Transportation Safety Board has noted this. They find by analyzing voice recorders after accidents and near-misses that in case of congestion or violent weather or aircraft equipment failure, good outcomes were more likely when pilot and co-pilot work as equals and communicate well. The dangerous cockpits are those where an authoritarian pilot is dismissive of the co-pilot’s concerns and suggestions.
It turns out that Dr. Bruton had thoughts on this as well. According to Dad, Dr. Bruton used to assert that “all people who were the same age knew the same amount.” By that he meant that even if a person had just stared at an alarm clock all day every day for his whole life (my father’s actual example in the retelling), so that all he knew was that alarm clock, he still knew more about that clock and its characteristics and successive ticks than any other person living. In other words, his brain had the memory device running for as long as anyone else; it just happened to record that particular thing, rather than the particular body of knowledge that you and I have accumulated. We might see our experience as more varied and therefore somehow richer, and maybe more useful, but we shouldn’t be so quick to reach that conclusion, and we shouldn’t so quickly marginalize our clock-watching friend.
Sound extreme? It did to me at first. But over time this observation began to make a profound impression on me. Today, whenever I encounter anyone new, I’m expectant. What does this person have to share? What will I learn? How will I change? I’ve never been disappointed.
This set of individual attitudes plays into our behavior in larger groups. Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that societies should be inclusive because we feel sorry for those who are often excluded. We view inclusiveness as a paternalistic responsibility – an act of noblesse oblige. It’s just something we should do, not something that we genuinely expect to be helpful. When we feel superior to another in this way, and fail to respect the other’s views and only make an external show of bringing everyone in, we’re merely fostering hypocrisy, versus seizing the opportunity that inclusiveness represents. In the 1960’s, when the United States deliberately introduced policies of inclusiveness – first equal opportunity, and then affirmative action – it was clear from the discussion, both pro- and con-, that many Americans thought this way. Interestingly, as artificial and as forced as these efforts sometimes were in their implementation, they’ve arguably strengthened us as a nation as a nation and improved our prospects, perhaps significantly so.
Consider for a moment our national and worldwide challenges: economic growth and reduction of poverty, public safety in the face of hazards, protection of the environment and ecosystems, education, health care, etc. Now reflect on our historic and present tendency to divide the country (or the world) into two groups, and then shut one out in the problem-solving effort: men and women, elderly and young, white and people of color, affluent and poor, educated and not-so-much, citizen and immigrant, people of faith and the non-religious, public-sector and private-sector, Republican and Democrat.
And think about the dozens of opportunities you’ll have today and tomorrow to build inclusiveness, and in so doing ferret out and start to deal with those blind spots that threaten our future.