'Curious' conversations will save us, author tells Exeter

Monica Guzman aims to build bridges by questioning our own assumptions and listening to each other.

October 6, 2023

Monica Guzman never said the word Harkness during her assembly address last month, nor does she ever mention the term in her acclaimed book “I Never Thought of It That Way,” but her messages in both resound with familiarity for anyone who has ever sat around a table.

"One of the things that’s going to help save our democracy is to get curious about people, with people," Guzman told her Exeter audience.

A Mexican immigrant and dual U.S./Mexico citizen, Guzman came to the United States when she was 6. She grew up in Dover, New Hampshire, and lives in Seattle with her husband and two children, a proud liberal daughter of conservative parents. That family dynamic is the foundation of her book and the inspiration for its title. “’I never thought of it that way’ is a phrase you say when some insight, from someone else’s perspective, has crossed that chasm between two human beings and maybe landed with you.”

Watch Monica Guzman's assembly address

Much of Guzman’s messages — listening to understand, not to respond; learning the roots of differing perspectives — parallel the values of Exeter’s Harkness pedagogy. Principal Rawson spoke about those values in the pages of The Exeter Bulletin when he arrived on campus in 2018 and has leaned on them ever since.

“We need less talking at each other, more listening to learn from each other rather than to judge or apply labels, and more effort to reach a common understanding around our problems. Harkness makes room for that. At Exeter, we have the chance to realize that our differences, and different perspectives, can be the very things that make life exciting. Our differences are how we express our common humanity. Understanding that — valuing it — is what I think Harkness drives us toward.”

Guzman told assembly that without connecting with people with differing perspectives, “whoever is under-represented in our life is going to be over-represented in our imagination. And our imaginations are not a great source of truth. They are where anxiety starts to fill in the blanks.

“The solution, as much as one can sum one up, is bridge-building. Looking for moments, having ways, to check your imagination with reality, by traversing what can feel like an impossible gap. This can be really, really hard to do, but the way that you begin to do it is just about yourself, questioning your own assumptions.”

Guzman’s book was the Exeter faculty’s common read over the summer. Her assembly will serve as an inspiration for students’ Core Value Project proposals this fall to encourage curious conversations and perspective sharing.

Guzman described a “vicious cycle” in today’s society “where you judge each other more while you’re engaging each other less. What that means is that the judgments you make rely more and more on the signals you get from media, from those who agree with you and less and less on the actual source: The minds and hearts of people who disagree with you.”