“Different Ways of Knowing”

The text: Daniel Tammet’s TED talk on synesthesia
The media: video/lecture
The thought: Tammet, a high-functioning autistic with synesthesia, a way of thinking that integrates information, visual/audio properties and feelings, explains the ways in which his mind works.
The lesson: A diversity of learning styles can encourage us to see a “richer” world.

I support the concept of this video — schools and, for that matter, citizens of the world, should open their minds to others’ ways of learning and seeing things. But I disapprove somewhat of the way this concept has been treated in the video. I don’t know enough about Daniel Tammet to make generalized comments on his work or perspective, but I think that sometimes singling out savants and people with autism as having this “higher plane” of experiencing life is detrimental. It makes people who have been labeled by society as “normal” learners seem inferior. I don’t see numbers as shapes with colors! they might say to themselves. What a drag… maybe someday I can start to see things the way autistics do.

The problem, as is often the case with champions of diversity, is that this kind of hierarchical value system on types of learners is the complete opposite of what diversity should be! To me, diversity in itself means the appreciation of everyone as a unique individual. However, there are many traits on which most humans converge. This is ok. We are still unique, and we can still do great things. Just because we don’t think in pictures (Temple Grandin shou-out) or see colors when we hear music, doesn’t necessarily mean we should try to, but that is essentially what Tammet is preaching in his talk.

Now, I won’t tear him down for this; more open-mindedness is always welcome and I’m glad this concept has been brought to light. But let’s look critically at this: his audience is, primarily, upper-middle class, educated folks who thirst for newness and knowledge. They get exactly that from his talk, but what I think is missing is a more actionable takeaway: a suggestion of how to see other people with the same variety of perspectives. Our society is particularly ignorant of the disconnect between language dialect and intelligence, to take a rather tangential example. Unfortunately, the same goes for race/socioeconomic status. This intellectual hegemony is a dividing force, and lionizing people like Daniel Tammet when everyone deserves that respect for their intellect, seems backwards to me.

My point is that we don’t need to prove we see the world in unconventional ways to be appreciated. Open-mindedness and acceptance should be the default. I hope viewers of this video understand that!


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