This week, I’m sharing responses to the question, “What insight or idea has thrilled or excited you?” This installment comes from Farah Pandith, a senior fellow on the Council on Foreign Relations who has worked on efforts to counter violent extremism around the world.
I was in eighth grade when our social studies class was asked to read Jane Goodall’s book In the Shadow of Man. Jane, the celebrated primatologist, ethologist and anthropologist, uncovered a new way of looking at our planet for me––from the inside out. What we saw on the surface was not what was really going on: in order to understand you had to watch, study, listen and respect.
I was seized with the idea that a 26 year-old woman with a notebook and a pair of binoculars had gone half way across the world to follow her interests (in 1960 this was extremely rare). And even as a 13 year old, the feminist in me cheered her on as I learned that she ignored those who thought she did not have the “right” credentials to explore a discipline for which she was passionate. But my excitement was not just about her journey, it was about what resulted from it: She found a new way of looking at something we had seen before and thought we understood.
Thrilled with her findings about chimpanzees, their behaviors and emotions, I was provoked and curious. “What did this mean?” I thought. “What else can they do? What else are they experiencing that we do not see?”
I remember reading and re-reading her words as she talked about these animals. I recall thinking about the concept of knowledge and understanding. What was the difference between knowledge and understanding? We learn and think we understand. But what if we don’t really?
I brought these thoughts to my history classes in high school, college and graduate school, always asking myself: What lies beneath what people think they know? Is this the whole story? What if I asked different questions about culture, art, religion, history, science, or international relations and observed from a different perspective? What would I find?
How one observes fundamentally impacts one’s knowledge and understanding. Learning to respect the difference between the two, and to pivot my perspective from the inside out, has helped me to deconstruct and analyze extremist ideology and those that are drawn to it.
Jane Goodall’s achievements go far beyond what I comprehended as an 8th grader, of course, but I am glad I had that early inspiration to try to “really, really see.”
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