“One way to assure the health of a discipline is to nurture contrasting perspectives.”
Constructive conflict refers to the act of embracing contrasting perspectives when they arise, instead of suppressing them, to drive progress (Leonard). Although originally coined for application within businesses, the concept also captures the essence of the title claim. In order to discuss the title statement, it is beneficial to first define the terms within it. The term “assure” can simply be defined as being synonymous with “make certain”, while “contrasting perspectives” can be defined as differing unique ways of regarding something, influenced by one’s background and beliefs, for example. The title statement also contains terms, which are used in an unconventional context. For example, the use of the term “health” with reference to a discipline prompts the formation of the question: how do we define the “health” of a discipline? Moreover, how do we “nurture” a contrasting perspective and on what basis do we decide, whether a contrasting perspective should be nurtured? These questions will be discussed with reference to history and literary study.
How do we define the “health” of a discipline? One way to approach this question is to it in terms of the health of a human being. For one, the health of a human is generally associated with living a long life. As such, a healthy discipline has maintained its relevance throughout history. Another characteristic of a healthy human is the ability to act as a contributing member of society. This means that a healthy discipline should generate knowledge about the object of research it is concerned with. However, this raises the issue of whether the produced knowledge should have practical applications in society or not. Neither literary study nor history arguably have practical applications in the same way that the disciplines within the natural sciences have in the fields of medicine and agriculture in drug development or creating genetically modified crops (Allott & Mindorff 191-192), but the two disciplines still satisfy the first condition of being historically established fields of study. Since the currently existing disciplines are varied in their methodologies and subject matters, the ideas of continued relevance and productivity should therefore be applied slightly differently for different disciplines.
How can we “nurture” a contrasting perspective? The term “nurture” generally refers to caring for or protecting something, such as a child or a houseplant, while it is growing. This perhaps implies that “nurturing” a contrasting perspective refers to encouraging the growth of contrasting perspectives within a discipline. This could be done by promoting open-mindedness and maintaining a climate within the discipline, where the holders of contrasting perspectives feel comfortable with coming forth with their ideas. On the other hand, a balance should be struck between open-mindedness and remaining critical of contrasting perspectives, which contribute little to assuring the health of a discipline. Perhaps the ability of the community within the discipline to strike this balance also depicts the health of the discipline.
Only a few would argue that a historian’s perspective does not affect their craft. Nurturing contrasting perspectives appears an intuitively appealing way of assuring the generation of knowledge in history; one would suppose that the more perspective we have on an event of the past, the richer the understanding of the past that is formed is. For example, for my Extended Essay in History, I investigated the involvement of women in the Algerian War. I found that both contemporaries – such as urban and rural women, as well as Algerian women and Algerian men – and historians had wholly contradictory accounts on women’s involvement in the conflict due to their gender and location at the time of the conflict.
I initially struggled to come to grips with this fact, but considering all the perspectives equally and comparing them with historical records ultimately guided me towards the conclusion that there were significant differences in the participation patterns of women in different areas. This goes to show how maintaining an open mind to different perspectives can further our understanding of the past and help us avoid painting historical events with a broad brush, particularly when historical records corroborate the contrasting perspectives.
Of course, there are cases, when contrasting perspectives cannot be supported by historical evidence. Scholar Jane Tompkins ran into this problem when she set out to investigate “what really happened” between English settlers and natives in 17th century New England. She observed no consensus between historians’ perspectives and decided to turn to primary sources, which “produced the problem all over again.” Ultimately Tompkins fails to provide an answer to the question she poses. This illustrates the limitation of nurturing contrasting perspectives to further the generation of knowledge and brings into focus the significance of the phrase “one way” in the title.
Contrasting perspectives can indeed be one way of assuring the health of a discipline, but not the only way and not always the best way, either. For example, another way of constructing a historical narrative is the “coherence” check, where historians seek points of agreement and overlap – rather than contradiction – to form an understanding of the past (Dombrowski et. al. 248). It can be argued that contrasting perspectives should be nurtured in history when they can be compared with historical evidence – if not, nurturing contrasting perspectives may fuel confusion and uncertainty.
On what basis do we determine, whether a contrasting perspective should be nurtured? Within history, one way is to consider a contrasting perspective with reference to historical “truth” that is generally agreed upon. Indeed, in history, we should not succumb to excessive open-mindedness and simply consider everything a matter of perspective, since there is usually a way of confirming that a certain event either happened or did not (Lagemaat 433). We know this as a result of applying reason to reach conclusions from evidence, such as legal files, letters or diaries (Lagemaat 428). For example, nurturing perspective of discredited historian and Holocaust denier David Irving (Lyall) would be harmful to the health of history as a discipline, as it contradicts the version of events generally accepted as “historical truth”. In general terms, one way to determine, whether a contrasting perspective should be nurtured, is to consider its truth-value.
The notion of “truth” is not as easily applied to the field of literary studies, as it is to history. The study of literature is arguably an inherently subjective discipline, where each reader forms their own interpretation of the text. For example, in my opinion, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” is best analyzed through the psychoanalytical literary lense, whereas my classmate thinks that the feminist literary lense is the best. Since there is no objective point of reference – or “truth” – that tells us, how the story should be interpreted, we can essentially consider both approaches equally valid.
This consideration of multiple perspectives at the same time contributes to assuring the production of knowledge within the discipline, since the multiple lenses can be applied on one text one after another to form a richer understanding of it. Moreover, the contrast between contemporary and modern perspectives on novels, such as Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre” and Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”, has contributed to them becoming “classics” within the discipline, as people continue to interpret them differently as times change. Thus, the contrast between old perspectives and emerging new viewpoints may help modernize the discipline of literary study.
As discussed earlier, nurturing those contrasting perspectives in history, which counter historical “truths”, is harmful to the health of the discipline, as they result in deterioration in the quality of knowledge produced. By contrast, it is difficult to identify a case, where nurturing contrasting perspectives within literary study may be harmful to assuring the health of the discipline due to its subjective nature. Of course, those perspectives, which are substantiated by valid evidence from the text and conveyed effectively through the use of language, are the most likely to prevail over their contrasting counterparts and contribute to the production of knowledge within the discipline.
This is because literary theory as a discipline aims to go beyond merely statements of personal preference (Conolly). However, ultimately even poorly substantiated emerging contrasting perspectives neither contribute to assuring the health of a discipline nor take away from it. This is because the contrasting perspectives in literature can coexist in a way that an established historical fact and a perspective that contradicts it cannot due to their subjective nature.
In conclusion, nurturing contrasting perspectives indeed appears to be one way to assure the health of history and literature as disciplines. Contrasting perspectives are arguably a central characteristic of both disciplines. On one hand, the subjectivity of each perspective may aid in the formation of a richer understanding of the subject matter. Yet, this same subjectivity may cause confusion, particularly when there is no way of supporting a perspective with external evidence, raising questions about what “really happened” or what is “really true”.
Moreover, in literary study, contrasting perspectives do not always contribute to assuring the health of a discipline, but neither take away from it. As such, the phrase “one way” in the title statement stands its ground: with the limitations of nurturing contrasting perspectives in mind, one can conclude that they are indeed one existing way to assure the health of a discipline, but certainly not the only way nor always the best way.