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The benefits of intellectual open-mindedness

A US college student explains why and how students can receive short-term and long-term benefits from actively engaging with multiple perspectives.

  • Student life
Zachary R. Wood 's avatar

Zachary R. Wood

December 18 2015
Open book


How often do you consider the possibility that you could be wrong about your most cherished beliefs? How much time have you spent thinking through arguments you deeply disagree with? How often do you seek to engage intellectually with those who hold opposing views?

I raise these questions because I value intellectual exchange and would like to see it flourish, not flounder, in the face of heated disagreement.

Many can agree that open-mindedness—a willingness to consider new ideas and arguments—is a positive characteristic of an active mind. Thus, students should be encouraged to be open-minded. However, I do not want my argument to rest here. Rather, I want to delineate some of the short and long-term benefits of practising open-mindedness in order to strengthen my recommendation that educators put more effort into exposing students to different perspectives. 

What are the short-term benefits?

  1. Pluralism:open-mindedness allows for a wider range of intellectual discourse on campus.
  2. Thoughtful consideration of differing opinions can promote understanding of the reasoning underlying oppositional arguments, so that students can effectively controvert them.
  3. Thinking through the logical argumentation of those with whom we disagree can help us strengthen our own arguments and improve our ability to effectively communicate differences of opinion. 
  4. Students who would otherwise be reluctant to express their opinions might be more likely to do so in an open-minded interaction.
  5. Open-mindedness can advance mutual understanding, which accommodates the ideal of students working constructively and cohesively toward achieving common goals, despite intense disagreement.

What are the long-term benefits?

  1. Open-minded interaction in college prepares students to have more constructive conversations about sensitive issues after they graduate.
  2. Entertaining opinions on all sides of various issues can help students come to understand the intellectual value and democratic significance of political tolerance in their future work-place.
  3. Cosmopolitanism: fostering open-mindedness can be a way of educating students on the importance of maintaining a universal respect for legitimate differences.    
  4. Exposure to and sustained engagement with a wider range of perspectives on pressing issues can better enable students to be informed critical thinkers and problem solvers, in various fields of human endeavor. 
  5. Students are more likely to be open to trying out new things and taking critical (potentially rewarding) risks once they graduate from college and embark on various career paths.

I think many teachers can do more to help their students potentially reap these benefits. In many classes in the social sciences and humanities, even the best professors will tell students their personal understanding of a particular thinker, issue, or event. Personally, I do not think that professors should necessarily self-censor, be apolitical, or refrain from expressing their opinions. However, I do think that students would learn more if professors put more effort into presenting multiple perspectives on topics of discussion.

For example, if the issue being discussed in a political science course is affirmative action, I think students would benefit from having their professor present and explain arguments on all sides of the issue, not just for and against, but also those perspectives in between for and against that might endorse affirmative action under a different guise or altered institutional framework. While professors should feel free to express their viewpoints, they should be mindful of the degree to which doing so can influence the thinking and understanding of their students.

Further, professors can encourage students who seem swayed one way or the other to consider different understandings of the topic being discussed. To be sure, this pedagogical approach does not apply just to social sciences. If, in an English course, students are reading Moby Dick by Herman Melville, a classic text often taught at universities, they should not just be presented with one interpretation or reading of the text. Rather, they should be presented with contrasting interpretations from various critics that challenge them to interrogate their own ideas and challenge those being discussed.

Needless to say, professors should not expect students to agree with them. Respectful disagreement should be understood as a legitimate, meaningful, and instructive intellectual outcome of any discussion. In these respects, the goal of class seminars and lectures is not to leave students with or convinced of the professor’s opinion. While the professor should feel free to express and defend their opinions, the goal should be to challenge students to think critically about opinions on all sides of issues on which people substantively disagree.  

Taking this approach toward open-mindedness, as the great American pragmatic philosopher, John Dewey suggests, “includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us.”

I encourage all students and teachers to consider this approach precisely because it is one that aims to be charitable and compassionate toward any perspective from which we can gain insight and wisdom in our efforts at making a positive difference in the lives of others. 

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