Open-mindedness is the idea that the knowledge and beliefs that you currently hold will not cause you to dismiss new information because it disagrees with what you already know or believe. If you are unwilling to consider new ideas because they disagree with what you think or believe, you are close-minded to the ideas. In their 2012 article “The psychology of closed and open mindedness, rationality and democracy”, published in Critical Review: A Journal of Politics and Society, Arie W. Kruglanski and Lauren M. Boyatzi of the Psychology department of the University of Maryland argue that being open-minded and close-minded depends on the reason for learning. So the reasons why you consider new information are just as important as the information itself, because of the influence the reasons have on your mind.

Harvey Siegel, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Miami argues in his 2009 article “Open-mindedness, Critical Thinking, and Indoctrination: Homage to William Hare”, published in Paideusis: International Journal in Philosophy of Education, that you can be open-minded and willingly accept new information, but do so without being critical. Siegel calls this acceptance of information at face-value passive thinking; you are simply persuaded by ideas without considering them properly. To properly consider new ideas, you need to be aware of what is surrounding the ideas. You need to ask who the information comes from, and if the information comes with an agenda. You need to find out if there is outside evidence confirming this information. You need to be aware of how you are consuming the information, why you are considering these ideas and what impact they will have on you. It is important to ask for evidence that proves the correctness of an idea and to be willing to consider ideas that do not agree with what you already know.

Kruglanski and Boyatzi suggest that there is a purpose to the way that you form ideas. You have motivations to forming your idea of the world around you. They suggest that you are likely to resist new information that disagrees with what you currently believe, if what you currently believe better supports the reason for your idea of the world around you. For example, if you believe that protests and protestors are bad, and if believing this allows you to fit in with those around you, you are more likely to reject information showing that the opposite is true. Similarly, if new information better supports your motivation, then you are more likely to be open to the new information.

In their book The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking: Concepts and Tools, authors Richard Paul and Linda Elder of the Foundation for Critical Thinking describe critical thinking as taking a step back and understanding why you think what you do with a willingness to change how you think in order to improve it. They also explain that critical thinking requires you to consider ideas that might not relate to experiences that you’ve had personally or think about what your culture takes as fact. This means considering experiences that you are unable to share in of other people in an attempt to understand their position and choices. Critical thinking in the space of your culture and society is the act of thinking about society and your place in it. It is a commitment to take part in the social and political aspects of democracy, a willingness to be open and consider perspectives that are different from your own, a willingness to add these perspectives to your way of thinking, and a willingness to challenge others to also be critical.

Dr James Roberts, a lecturer in the Department of Geology at UP, says that most importantly for students, critical thinking involves being able to deconstruct a question and understand the flaws and strengths of the different approaches for answering it, rather than repeat what a lecturer says in class. He continues to say that, when facing a problem, a student should sit down and think about the problem, deconstruct it, and solve it in as an efficient way as possible. “Above first-year, and especially at Honours and beyond, critical thinking is by far the most important skill a scientist or engineer possesses,” said Roberts on critical thinking in STEM fields.

Siegel regards critical thinking as one of the aims of education and goes on to say, “Open-mindedness is not only an important aim, it is also a necessary one, for any education worthy of the name.” By saying that open-mindedness and critical thinking are important aims for education, Siegel does not say that the subject-specific knowledge gained by an education is of less value. In fact, the implication of this is that critical thinking and open-mindedness is necessary to understand and internalise subject-specific knowledge. So learning is not a passive experience, but something to actively partake in. As a student you have to take part in the process of learning, consider information not just at face value, but with “a disposition to seek reasons and evidence, and to believe on that basis.”

Scepticism and the deconstruction of ideas are the fundamental tools for critical thinking. In order to effectively take part in your academics and social sphere you need to be aware of how you think and the biases involved in your thinking. You need to be empathetic to the perspectives of those around you and be willing to consider these perspectives even if they don’t agree with yours. In the South African social context, critical thinking would require you to think about what you know and believe to be true, and to measure that with what you see around you and the perspectives of other people around you. University is a good place for this to happen since you are exposed to so many different people from all over the country. Each person brings their own perspective. Perspectives clash as people from urban centres often look at the world through different cultural lenses. Critical thinking is about solving problems. It is a way of deconstructing the problem and judging solutions, and this needs to be applied and practiced.

Image: Michal Linden.

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