Embracing Intellectual Diversity Improves Decision-Making, Problem-Solving Skills

CJ Blair, Columnist

When you look outside your dorm room window, the trees you see are probably maples, oaks or honey locusts. While this is not a guarantee, they are far and away the most likely choices, with only a handful of other possibilities. After a summer of reading a field guide to trees like it was the Bible, I’m now equipped to make wonderfully strange observations like this. Learning to identify trees was the best way for me to gain an appreciation for the everyday diversity that I so often overlooked, but it also revealed the degree of homogony and unspoken mistakes in landscaping that I found prevalent in many other aspects of the world.

I grew interested in botany while working at a plant nursery back home in Kentucky. After countless hours sorting and potting plants, I began to tell them apart by their flowers, leaves and even taste. As I became better at recognizing each species, I found that doing so boosted my self-confidence and gave me a much better understanding of the variety I’d previously failed to notice. But as I started taking inventory of the trees I saw around town, I had a revelation that suddenly depreciated my contentment: There sure are a lot of red maples everywhere.

Anyone can make these observations, but many people find themselves unable to because they think tree identification is strange and inaccessible, a pastime better left to nerds like me or experts who fully appreciate it. But identifying trees is no different than any other activity in that a firm grasp of the basic concepts can help you navigate the more difficult parts. If people were willing to make this tiptoe of faith, they would be able to make informed statements about not only trees, but all the other topics they tend to shy away from, like politics and chemistry.

This isn’t to say that everyone should walk around tasting pine needles or reading books on political theory, but accepting the power that lies in rudimentary knowledge would help them make decisions in their own self-interest. In my hometown of Lexington, KY, the only species of tree planted in the town square was Bradford pear, and when fire blight infected one of them, all the trees had to be chopped down. If the city planners or townspeople had even a basic knowledge of botany, they would’ve put the kibosh on planting only one species of tree in a heartbeat.

Similar detriments due to lack of information occur everywhere, and Oberlin College is no exception. While the College’s claims of ethnic and ideological diversity are common knowledge in academia, it takes only a week on campus to realize these are problematic statements. Similarly, our ranking as one of the nation’s leaders in sustainability becomes incredibly hard to grapple with when the proclaimed eco-friendly dorm is the only one with air conditioning and solar panels that don’t actually work.

Despite its shortcomings, I still consider Oberlin the best college I could’ve asked for. There are countless aspects of the College I know students would be eager to change, and all it takes to do so is to make an effort to find them. It’s not always possible to get to the root of every problem, but my advice for getting started and gaining the necessary awareness is turning to the trees and learning to tell a spruce from a cedar.