Are You Open or Closed?

I started writing this after looking at a kettle. Not after staring at it and pondering how it had got there, nor whether its producers – Russell Hobbs, if you must now – were any better than the next kettle manufacturer. No, I looked at this kettle a little longer than usual because it represented something, something I’d wanted to avoid acknowledging for a long time. It represented the growing closed-mindedness of a family member.

Just as we all get to the age where we can drive ourselves around, or live in a house without Mum and Dad (and without burning it down), so too, it seems, do we reach the age where our minds gradually begin to close. As they start shutting themselves off from the outside world, bit by bit, new outfits exchange themselves for replacements of old ones, kettles remain Russell Hobbs, other people’s opinions are a little less attractive. Middle-old age beckons in the dawn of closed-mindedness.

Or so you’d think. Educational philosopher William Hare suggests open-mindedness can be “lost sight of in education if we (teachers and governors) think of information and skills as our primary goals”. Open-mindedness can also be lost with inherited, dogmatic values, which again can be challenged through an open-minded, inquiring education. Critically, closed-mindedness does not only occur in old age. It is prevalent in all walks of life.

Whilst education can evidently contribute to open-mindedness, Hare’s work shows that a number of other factors are involved. Dogmatism, assumptions, bias, neutrality, humility and expertise are just a few traits influencing our “open-minded inquiry”, forming a map that “reveals the richness and texture” of open-mindedness.

Its counter-force, closed-mindedness, is often the cause of social problems. Human relations – in work and outside – are too readily encumbered by rigid differences of opinion that clash and remain unresolved. Larger societal issues like nationalist xenophobia and inherent British racism are embodied by a minority yet are inescapably severe. The misplaced political fury and entrenched nostalgia for a long-gone British empire, arguably contributing to Britain’s Leave vote in the Brexit referendum, will ring true of closed-mindedness for a certain dissatisfied segment of the UK population.

Yet despite its prevailing presence in society, closed-mindedness is treated with a disdainful, similarly closed-minded approach. A quick scout across the internet drags up handfuls of unforgiving quotes, dressed-up prettily for sharing. “A closed mind is a dying mind” and “The problem with closed-minded people is that their mouth is always open” are passive-aggressive attacks on closed-mindedness. Whilst promoting an open mind-set may well have positive repercussions, declaring the minds of others as degenerative is surely a tad closed-minded in itself.

In a constantly changing world, it is increasingly important that open-mindedness is cultivated and supported. In order to sustain the intelligent and lucid debate that will carry our challenging global economy forwards, or even just to foster healthy everyday relations, open-mindedness is the way. In the words of the Dalai Lama, “the mind is like a parachute, it works best when it is open.”

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