Each time I come back to campus after a break, I think about my arrival as a wide-eyed first-year and about all the ideas I had about college back then. When I first came to Columbia, I dreamed of meeting a whole range of exciting new friends, each with his or her own world-view or opinion, and that my friendships with them would melt away my old stereotypes and prejudices. Although it hasn't worked exactly the way I imagined it—I'm pretty sure it only works that way in movies—if you took out the hyperbole, you'd still have a pretty accurate description of my college experience. I don't think I'm alone in this. Almost everyone comes to college with the expectation of being changed in some way, and for many people, this change comes about by encountering new ideas and views, using them to shape their own thinking. The possibility for this kind of change gives rise to what might be the most common advice given to students about college: "Keep an open mind." This little phrase was uttered by almost everyone I talked to about college, from relatives to counselors. But there's a problem with this phrase: It can be used to mean two different things. In one sense, it means, "Listen well, and don't automatically reject different opinions—you never know what you'll learn from people you don't agree with." If I talk about open-mindedness, this is usually what I mean. But there's another meaning, one that I've encountered most often in the Columbia classroom. Professors have told me to "keep an open mind," by which they mean, "If you hold any sort of conviction, you need to permanently forget about it in order to properly appreciate differing points of view." This definition of open-mindedness bothers me for a few reasons. First of all, keeping your own convictions at bay is difficult, and if it's not, it proves not so much that you're a paragon of open-mindedness as that you weren't really convinced of them in the first place. Second, this definition only allows for productive conversations in certain situations. If the aim of hearing about a given opinion or world-view is simply to learn what principles or tenets it's constructed of, then it might be helpful to put aside gut reactions and individual beliefs in order to focus on familiarizing oneself with the view at hand. But if you wanted to compare and contrast your views and someone else's, if you wanted to refine your existing principles by adding elements of other views, if you simply wanted to get better at articulating your beliefs by having it out with someone who believes the opposite—the second definition of open-mindedness would prevent it. You might as well try to fist fight with a pacifist. But beyond all that, my main issue with the second definition of open-mindedness is simple: It's unnecessary. I believe it's possible to have genuine, thought-provoking dialogue that respects opposing viewpoints while still maintaining conviction. Uncritically rejecting others' views is an unhelpful position, to be sure—but so is uncritically accepting others' views. The truly thoughtful person is one who takes others' views, places them next to his or her own to see the differences and similarities, and decides whether to accept them as true, reject them as false, incorporate parts of them, or adopt them wholesale. The second sort of open-mindedness is often touted as a panacea for the human race's tendency towards intolerance—for instance, as a way to more fully respect another person's convictions. If you aren't hung up on your own beliefs, the argument goes, you can more easily see why other people believe theirs. But in my experience, it hasn't worked that way. I've attempted to understand others' convictions by putting aside my own, but I'm more empathetic to conflicting viewpoints if I remember, "This person believes y as strongly as I believe x." The second sort of open-mindedness, though purported to be kind and helpful, really does us a disservice in this situation—and in others as well. Instead, maybe we should practice what I would call "keeping our minds ajar"—not closing our minds off from other ideas but also avoiding the second kind of open-mindedness. It may be tricky at times, but I believe it's the most effective way to learn from others while staying true to ourselves. And where better to do that than the gloriously opinionated place that is Columbia? In this new semester, I challenge us all to accord each others' viewpoints the ultimate respect—the respect of taking them seriously as belonging to people of conviction. Kathryn Brill is a Barnard sophomore majoring in English. She is a member of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. We Should Talk runs alternate Fridays.
Columbia Spectator Staff