Having an "Open Mind" …

a Psychological Asset or a Liability?

We've all heard that's it's great to have an "open mind." It's sometimes offered as a compliment, "My mother's got such an open-mind; she's really cool."

However, more frequently it's used as a weapon, "Ah come on! There's no harm in trying a little pot – you've got to be more open-minded. You don't like Picasso? Don't be so close-minded."  "You won't pierce your bellybutton? You are so old-fashioned. Get with the times and be more open-minded!"

Open-minded conjures up images of  an adventurous, spontaneous, fun-loving, vivacious person. Closed minded conjures up images of a pea-brained, dull, dry, pathetic individual whose mind and body have entered a pre-mature state of rigor mortis. Recalling my years at Brown University, I have to report that I was one of the close-minded ones.

In April of 1971, I was with my family visiting Israel, Lebanon and Egypt. It was a risky trip; Egypt and Israel were on the verge of a war. I was in Egypt when I received a telegraph from my aunt. I tore it open and read in cryptic form "Congrat –  Accepted into Xbroke."  I had been accepted into Pembroke College, which within the year was to merge with Brown University. I was ecstatic. Although we were surrounded by danger,   (Cairo was "blacked out" in the evenings to make it a more difficult target were war to break out and Russian MIGs were in the airfield next to us), I thought only of my good news. Acceptance into Brown University, my dream, had come true.

My experiences at Brown, however, were to be a strange philosophical journey. In exploring a possible future career, I  decided to take art classes. I was full of enthusiasm to learn how to draw and paint. I first had to take an introductory art course nick-named "spots and dots."  A delightful, famous  cartoonist taught the class. The first day we were told to bring in one cork (such as one from a wine bottle), a black inkpad and a large pad of newsprint. Class two: we sat up high on stools with drawing boards in front of us.  Our first assignment was to put one circular black cork mark somewhere on the large newsprint. We each followed this unquestioningly.  I love surprises: something seems pointless, but then you learn an exciting principle in a new way. Well, I was about to learn a new principle, but not a healthy one.  The professor walked around  looking at our one dot on newsprint masterpieces. He smiled and picked up mine. I had randomly placed my black circle near a corner. He commented how good mine was. I felt a puzzled  flicker of pride. Mine was good! But the puzzling feeling grew and the pride faded. I felt like a fool. Why was my dot superior? He gave no answer – just his engaging smile. Did he want us to ask  why I had the superior dot?  No. Was this a sick joke? All of the placements of black dots were arbitrary – no standard was ever offered as to why one was "good" and one was "bad." The principle I was starting to learn was that standards were not welcome.

Okay, give the  professor a break, Ellen. Maybe he had a bad day and was unprepared for class. What else would I learn from his valuable introductory art course? Future assignments were to draw more and more  cork pictures. I cut up my cork into a leaf shape so I could draw a forest scene. He didn't like that; realism was out.  Just patterns or dots. What assignment followed? Covering a deck of 52 cards with mini-collages.  I complained that I was learning no painting techniques, no drawing techniques, no methods of blending colors, no method of how to draw in perspective. What was  his response? His warm, mocking laugh. He told me that I was passe, too old fashioned and warned me that no one teaches that stuff anymore.  I needed to be more "open-minded." I recall  meeting him, a few years later, while he was bike riding. He stopped and asked me if I still hated modern art. I said yes, absolutely. He smiled. I felt like a sucker, a victim, but of what? What harm can one useless "mindless" course do to a person? Were my parents paying big bucks to send me to a school that nourished my ambition – or that laughed at it?  I was sorely "close-minded."

Was my art history class much better? Yes, in one sense; it was a survey course and it fueled my mind with great artworks, images of what was possible, if one had the skills. In another sense, our assignments were a bit odd. For example, I had to compare Michaelangelo's glorious statue of David to six, flat, orange Plexiglas shelves in the List "Art" Museum. This seemed silly and annoying: another sick joke. What are the similarities between six shocking-orange Plexiglas shelves and Michaelangelo's David? They both reflect light? They both have weight and take up space? One was art and one was a mockery of art!  Again annoyed, I wrote a longer paper expressing my distaste for this assignment. I got a B  and some helpful feedback – I needed to be more "open-minded."

At this point, I was finally ready for my advanced studio art course – oil painting. Again the professor was a smiling guy who painted smudged, blurry, pretty, pastel blotches. This should have been a warning. I bought the expensive tubes of oil paints and the required enormous canvas. My first memory of this class is the professor telling us to "express ourselves" on that oversized canvas. He would add nothing else. To teach would impede our "natural talent." I told him to take  that chance and teach me perspective and color blending and drawing for starters. He smiled, amused. I remember sitting by the window, seeing the statue of the Independent Man on top of the RI State House dome. I decided that I would draw that scene. With little talent and a lot of enthusiasm, I started. He came by and his smile vanished. He told me that I didn't understand his assignment to "express myself." He took me by the arm and brought me around the sterile studio.  My classmates were smarter than I was. They stood at their canvases, with palates full of expensive oil paints and splashed them irregularly on the canvas. The resulting products looked like vomit. He told me that I should try to paint like Jackson Pollock, the artist du jour.   He laughed at me. I broke into tears and went to speak to my art history teacher who attempted to pacify me with a reminder to be more "open-minded." Something was wrong with that term, but I  would not grasp it until years later. I gave up and went in search of a new major.

Psychology seemed fascinating. I took the introductory course. Maybe I could  understand why I was so "close-minded".  Well it turns out that B.F. Skinner was the psychologist du jour. In my introductory course I learned how to feed rats Rice Krispies. I was taught that, much like the mice, man's mind is insignificant, controlled by his environment. My desire to be a psychology major dwindled.

I turned to biology. My friends,  looking at how I could not handle spots and dots and feeding rats, shook their heads and wondered how on earth I would handle histology (the microscopic study of every cell in the body). I  recaptured my enthusiasm, not for art or psychology at Brown, but for the sciences. I loved histology. I was introduced to the microscopic world of cells – and every aspect of every cell made  sense. The teaching was organized, interesting, and rational. I thrived.  I was eager to spend late night hours studying my histology textbook, or sneaking into the lab to study slides of  cells. It was fascinating.  I discovered an ambition that I could never have experienced when given a senseless project of drawing random dots on paper. My enthusiasm flourished and I got an easy A in the course.

During my years at Brown, my mind had been a fervent battleground – a war between conflicting philosophies.  I set goals to major in art and  psychology, only to discover irrationality ruling those areas. This spots and dots course is loony, I thought.  My psychology course doesn't help me understand myself at all.  Why do I seem like odd man out? Why am I seen as the "close-minded" one?  What's wrong with that criticism?  Why did my ambition falter in "easy" courses?  Why did I flourish in  challenging, difficult courses?   I was still feisty: "They are wrong and I can't explain why – but I know that there is something wrong with being 'open-minded'." The answer remained elusive.

My Brown University experiences were sometimes joyous (e.g., biology courses, good friends, and a chorus trip to Eastern Europe), but they were also tainted with irrationality. From the classes I've mentioned above, to learning from "open-minded" professors that America is a bad, imperialistic country and that the third world countries are to be  admired, my uncritical acceptance of these notions, in an effort to be "open minded," would have destroyed me. I would have lost the capacity to judge ideas and works of art by a rational  standard.  The antidote I needed was the power of an explicit rational philosophy, which I would soon find.

One day I was watching Donahue.  He was interviewing a short, elderly woman, with a thick, Russian accent, named Ayn Rand. I sat ironing in front of the television, not knowing that that day would change my life forever.  I found her fascinating and I read her books, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.  They energized me more than any Brown University class had. Why? Brown University is an Ivy League  school, with a fabulous reputation.  But inside its ivy walls it had a philosophical cancer.

Later I read a small book by Ayn Rand, The Romantic Manifesto,  and I understood what was going on philosophically in my "spots and dots" class and in my rat psychology class. The "virtue" of the "open-mind" mystery was solved. I felt vindicated. An open mind was a non-judging mind allowing irrationality and rationality the same status. In her essay, Art and Moral Treason, Ayn Rand discusses the case of a good man who loses his  motivation for no clear reason – he is depressed.   What would explain this? She explains that people need to develop healthy values, and that need is "not merely left unaided, it is all but stifled and destroyed" by some parents and by some educational systems.  I thought of my art classes and other irrationality I experienced at Brown, when my desire for knowledge and for learning skills was mocked and I was seen as pathetically "close-minded." I was close-minded, I learned from Ayn Rand – close-minded to irrationality. And better yet, I discovered that my "rebellion" against open-mindedness represented a fight to preserve my active thinking mind.

What type of student did such professors want to train, take "pride" in training? "Open-minded" ones splashing paint on canvases? Ones who would spend valuable study time making collages on 52 cards? Ones who agreed that man has no free will as proven in rat experiments? The assault on my ambition, on my active mind was a subtle one – the attack "being close-minded" was used as a weapon to silence my rebellion against a lack of standards (e.g., orange Plexiglas slabs on par with the art of Michaelangelo).  Ayn Rand describes such an assault: "His spirit is not broken at one sudden blow: it is bled to death in thousands of small scratches."  I received many of those scratches at Brown.

Why then did I excel in histology, a tough course? It gave me hope on a deeper level that life could be challenging, full of difficult, interesting goals, and graspable. There I was not bled to  death, but recovered by my re-discovery of a goal-oriented, rational, causal world.  After college, Ayn Rand helped me understand the fallacy of the "open mind." An open mind is like a sewer that lets in any ideas uncritically. It is an active mind, a thinking and questioning mind, that is a value, not a passive, uncritical, open dump. Brown's "open-mind" climate  encouraged praise of irrationality and mockery of rationality.  Fortunately, my biology professors offered a rational climate – and Ayn Rand helped me solve the mystery of the philosophical  war going on at universities across America and in my own mind.