Offices & Resources

On the Importance of Perspective Taking
On the Importance of Perspective Taking
One day a foreign scholar came to Aksehir and asked to talk to the wisest man in the city. The villagers took him to the Hodja. When they met, the foreigner took a stick and drew a large circle on the ground. The Hodja looked at the circle, took the stick, and drew a line across the middle of the circle. The foreigner drew another perpendicular line, dividing the circle into quarters. The Hodja gestured as though he were taking three of the sections and leaving the fourth. The foreigner then put his fingers together, faced them toward the ground, and shook them. The Hodja raised his hand to the sky and stretched out his fingers. When the meeting was over, the foreign scholar explained, "Your Hodja is very smart. When I indicated that the Earth was round, he responded that an equator divides it. When I divided the Earth into four sections, he said that three-quarters of it is water. When I asked him what causes rain, he told me that water evaporates, vapor rises, then clouds form and turn into rain." The villagers asked the Hodja what happened during the meeting. He answered, "That glutton! He told me he had a pan of baklava. I said that he couldn't eat it alone and that I would eat half of it. Then he asked me what I would do if he divided it into four pieces. I told him that I would take three of them. Then he said, 'Let's sprinkle nuts on it.' I said, 'Fine, but you can't bake baklava on a weak fire; it has to be strong.' He felt defeated and went away."

This story dates from the 1400s and comes from the Turkish folk tradition. According to legend, the creator of the tale is Nasreddin Hodja, a wise teacher who told many stories to make points about human nature, politics, and the differences between social classes. Indeed, the word Hodja means teacher. Many of these stories have been passed down from generation to generation orally and in writing. [1]


One day a foreign scholar came to Aksehir and asked to talk to the wisest man in the city. The villagers took him to the Hodja. When they met, the foreigner took a stick and drew a large circle on the ground. The Hodja looked at the circle, took the stick, and drew a line across the middle of the circle. The foreigner drew another perpendicular line, dividing the circle into quarters. The Hodja gestured as though he were taking three of the sections and leaving the fourth. The foreigner then put his fingers together, faced them toward the ground, and shook them. The Hodja raised his hand to the sky and stretched out his fingers. When the meeting was over, the foreign scholar explained, "Your Hodja is very smart. When I indicated that the Earth was round, he responded that an equator divides it. When I divided the Earth into four sections, he said that three-quarters of it is water. When I asked him what causes rain, he told me that water evaporates, vapor rises, then clouds form and turn into rain." The villagers asked the Hodja what happened during the meeting. He answered, "That glutton! He told me he had a pan of baklava. I said that he couldn't eat it alone and that I would eat half of it. Then he asked me what I would do if he divided it into four pieces. I told him that I would take three of them. Then he said, 'Let's sprinkle nuts on it.' I said, 'Fine, but you can't bake baklava on a weak fire; it has to be strong.' He felt defeated and went away."


This story dates from the 1400s and comes from the Turkish folk tradition. According to legend, the creator of the tale is Nasreddin Hodja, a wise teacher who told many stories to make points about human nature, politics, and the differences between social classes. Indeed, the word Hodja means teacher. Many of these stories have been passed down from generation to generation orally and in writing. [1]

This story, of the interaction between a scholar, presumably from Europe, and the wisest man in the Central Turkey city of Aksehir, is commonly used to illustrate the dangers of making assumptions about a person and how they are thinking, especially if the two people come from different cultures. I first came across the story this summer in one of the books recommended for faculty and staff to deepen our thinking about diversity, equity, and inclusion, entitled Is Everyone Really Equal? [2]

The characters in the story, presumably, do not speak a common language, a fact that contributes to the misunderstanding. After all, if two people do not speak the same language misunderstanding can easily arise.

However, contributing most to the misunderstanding is the meaning each made of the drawing of the circle in the dirt, the lines added to the circle to make four quadrants, and the hand gestures. The European scholar thought the Hodja understood that the European was communicating about the earth and water, and the Hodja thought the European understood that the Hodja was communicating about baklava, a popular Turkish pastry dessert.

In the version of the story I just read to you, the Hodja conveys disdain for the European, and a sense of superiority. In other versions of the story you can find, while the two parties develop mistaken assumptions about the other, they also convey mutual respect. [3] Obviously, mutual respect is better than disdain. However, whether an interaction is respectful or disdainful, a positive relationship cannot be built that is based on a misunderstanding about what someone is trying to communicate, and worse, on an assumption that you know what the person is trying to communicate.

And worse yet, if one person in an interaction conveys disdain, that person is feeling a sense of superiority, thereby prompting a sense of anger or hurt in the other person. In settings where one is part of a majority group, it is all too easy to assume that others think the same way, that is the "right way;" my way. If one is part of a minority group it is easy to pick up signals that one is being viewed negatively by members of the majority group, whether the signals sent are implicit or explicit, intentional or unintentional.

This 15th-century story, therefore, brings to mind for me something far more contemporary: testimonials from Black and Brown St. Mark's alumni in the Black@SM Instagram feed that started in the summer of 2020. The alumni report that while at St. Mark's, in some cases very recently, they were made to feel less than fully accepted as members of the St. Mark's community. Many of these alumni describe words and actions from white St. Mark's students and adults that conveyed negative assumptions, a feeling of superiority, and the sense that these students of color were not viewed with the same respect as their white peers.

As someone who cares deeply about equity and as someone who very much wants every member of the St. Mark's community to feel affirmed here, these testimonials were very painful to read in the summer of 2020. Reflecting in the summer of 2021 on the Hodja story in juxtaposition with the testimonials presented in the Black@SM Instagram feed has prompted further personal learning for me that, I hope, will help me continue to grow in my leadership work.

Particularly painful for me is the fact that I was head of our School during the time when some of the graduates who offer testimonials on the Instagram feed were St. Mark's students. The Hodja story helps me recognize that what I believed about myself in how I approached these students was different than how those who offered testimonials were viewing me. I would never want to contribute to someone at St. Mark's feeling less than fully accepted at our School, and I thought I was acting in a way that confirmed that acceptance. I recognize now that I was not asking enough questions—seeking deeply enough to understand how students of color were experiencing St. Mark's and I was thus not gaining the information I needed to engage with students most effectively and to lead our School most effectively. I needed—and continue to need—to learn to see my alma mater, our School, from a different perspective, from a perspective other than my own.

While I cannot change the past, I can commit—as one individual—to work on deepening my own skills that will help me better approach matters of diversity, equity, and inclusion. I can also commit, as the head of our School, to leading in a manner that will help others, and therefore our School as a whole, become more skilled in approaching matters of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Increasing these skills is lifelong work, whatever our age and whatever our background.

Fortunately for everyone at St. Mark's, many others who read the Instagram feed in the summer of 2020 also found the testimonials painful and requiring a response. Shortly after the Instagram feed appeared, the testimonials inspired a petition, spearheaded by the Pathways Prefects, that identified a number of concrete steps the School had to take so that current members of the St. Mark's community would feel fully accepted for all aspects of their identity.

Spurred by this petition, in 2020-2021, the School undertook more intentional antiracist professional development and curricular work, we expanded counseling services to include additional resources for Black, Brown, Asian and Asian-American students, and we began a deep examination of school policies and practices so that we can replace any that perpetuate inequity with policies and practices that support equity. These and other action steps are part of a multi-year antiracist action plan.

I look forward to leading the School's antiracist initiative in 2021-22, building on the important work done for a number of years especially by the Community and Equity Office and Global Citizenship Program. As the 2020-21 antiracist work developed, two themes emerged that I am eager for us to pay particular attention to in the coming year. First, I heard that not feeling accepted for all aspects of your identity can arise for a number of reasons, making addressing that topic more complex than it might first appear. The technical term for that point is intersectionality, the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender. Second, I heard that as a school, we were having a particular challenge in meeting this standard that is an essential part of our Episcopal identity: the ability to engage in respectful dialogue across lines of disagreement and difference. We can—and must—talk together better.

As I reflect on the important diversity, equity, and inclusion work undertaken at St. Mark's last year and in the years previous, and as I reflect on the work that lies ahead for us to become a true antiracist school, the topic of perspective taking keeps coming to my mind as an essential element of the work that is a worthy focus of particular attention in 2021-2022. Perspective taking, which has been a phrase employed in our School's diversity, equity, and inclusion and global citizenship literature for a number of years, is the effort to understand how a person from a different culture, background, or life experience is understanding and experiencing the world.

I believe that in order to lead a life of consequence perspective taking is a necessary habit of mind, something you need to want to do, and it is also a skill that one needs to constantly work to develop. I believe perspective taking is an essential habit of mind and skill for us to focus on at St. Mark's if St. Mark's is to become a true antiracist school.

In the fable I read to start this talk, both the European and the Hodja failed utterly at perspective taking. The testimonials in the Black@SM Instagram feed indicate that, as in the Hodja story, perspective-taking by St. Markers, including me, was inadequate, resulting in a community where some St. Markers did not feel fully accepted for all aspects of their identity. The Instagram feed also indicates that an inadequate understanding of how the world looks to someone different from yourself existed in many St. Markers, thus impeding the ability of St. Markers of all backgrounds from best gaining the perspective needed to lead lives of consequence in an increasingly diverse 21st Century world. The work of recent years, and especially our 2020-2021 antiracism initiatives, has helped us improve in these areas as a School community, and that work provides an excellent platform for us to build upon as we continue our antiracist efforts in 2021-2022.

It is easy to underestimate how difficult perspective taking is. University of Pennsylvania psychologist Adam Grant reports that in 25 experiments intended to assess how people imagine the way those different from themselves see the world, the participants, according to Grant, "failed to elicit more accurate insights," and worse, the experiments "occasionally made participants more confident in their own inaccurate judgments." The reason perspective taking is so hard and is so often unsuccessful, in Grant's view, is because, as he puts it, "we're terrible mind readers. We're just guessing." [4]

While Grant is certainly making an important observation about perspective taking, grounded in social science research, he is also oversimplifying the topic, in my opinion, by failing to reference the concept of second sight. Second sight is an aspect of perspective taking described by Atlanta University historian and sociologist W.E.B DuBois in his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk and frequently referenced in the literature about race relations ever since. According to DuBois, because of the predominance of white attitudes of superiority, and the resulting racist policies and practices, Blacks in America, in order to ensure success—and sometimes their very survival—have needed to develop what he calls a double-consciousness, or second sight. "It is a peculiar sensation," DuBois writes, "this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity." [5]

While certainly contempt and pity do not characterize how anyone would view a person of color at St. Mark's, Black colleagues like Dr. Daves, and Black students, have described for me being taught from an early age the necessity to imagine how a member of the dominant group would interpret their actions in order to ensure smooth relations and sometimes even physical safety.

Adam Grant and many others, including Dr. Warren, identify a deceptively simple step to take in understanding how a person different from yourself views the world: engage in conversations, and in particular ask questions and listen with empathy and an open mind. As opposed to the characters in the Hodja fable, fortunately, we have a common language for these conversations. Of course, one does not get the sense that either character in the fable was interested in learning how the other person was thinking, the background and experiences that led the other to interpret the interaction in the way they did.

Grant presents all sorts of evidence in his 2021 book, Think Again, about how people who are different, whatever the category of difference, can get beyond the stereotypes that impede positive relationships by engaging in conversations that are characterized by asking questions that come from a place of seeking to understand. Asking questions, and engaging in respectful dialogue, is itself an art that comes with practice and can require grace and courage since even the best intended conversations can go awry. Fortunately, I believe our intentionally small boarding school, grounded in Episcopal values, is an excellent environment to build the perspective taking habit of mind and skill. I believe, too, that engaging in conversations and asking questions contributes significantly to St. Mark's becoming a true antiracist school.

So, I would like us now to take a couple of minutes to engage in a perspective taking exercise, which I feel is relevant whether you have been here for three days or for 25 years or more. Please engage in a brief conversation with the person to your left or your right in which you seek to learn a little bit about that other person and in which you are open to sharing about yourself in the spirit of knowing and being known more fully. After a bit of time, I will ask that if the other person has not had a chance to answer questions, that the conversation shift in that way.

While you are free to ask any questions you want, I ask that you avoid asking silly questions for this exercise like "what is your favorite ice cream?"

Here are some questions you might try:
  • What is something important to you that I might not know?
  • What are one or two aspects of your identity—who you are--that are important to you?
  • How are you thinking about helping yourself and others in your house (residential or Burnett) feel accepted in all aspects of their identity?
Also, as you engage in the conversation, I ask that you follow some guidelines that we have identified at St. Mark's for conversations that might become sensitive in some way:
  • Speak from the "I" perspective.
  • The only assumption we should make is the assumption of positive intent.
  • Challenge yourself and others with grace aimed at clarity. Listen to understand, not to judge.
  • Disagreement is a learning opportunity.
  • Lean into discomfort.
  • Practice your capacity to honor multiple perspectives. As we remain impassioned, also remain respectful and civil. The conversation is ongoing.
Thank you. I hope that conversation felt good, and I hope that however much experience you have had with perspective taking, that you are willing to commit to the practice in the coming year and beyond. Building this habit of mind and skill is something you can do to help make St. Mark's a truly antiracist school, and it is also something you can do to prepare yourself to lead a life of consequence in whatever way makes sense for you at and after your time at St. Mark's.

I am very excited about the progress we will surely make at St. Mark's in the coming year as we advance ever further toward being a true antiracist school. I am also very excited about the fact that we are all together as an entire school community for 2021-2022. Although COVID limitations will remain an inevitable part of our reality at St. Mark's, we will be able to do most of what makes this community so rich in the way we want to. I look forward to the many positive moments inside and outside the classroom that we will certainly share in the coming months.

[1] The text of the story, information about Hodja, and the story along with commentary appear in Patricia N. Sullivan, "Nasreddin and the Importance of Context," English Teaching Forum, July 2002, English Teaching Forum Magazine January 2002, Volume 40, Number 3 (state.gov).
[2] Ozlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo, Is Everyone Really Equal? An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, Second Edition, New York: Teachers College Press, 2017. Thank you to Laura Appell-Warren for suggesting that I use this fable in my Convocation Talk.
[3] In the version of the story presented by Sensoy and DiAngelo, the characters convey mutual respect.
[4] Adam Grant, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don't Know, New York: Viking, 2021, p. 178.
[5] Quoted and commented upon in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Double Consciousness (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)