“Most respectful of the truth”: Exploring open-mindedness with Mark Lenker

Academic Freedom, Diversity, Professional Ethics

By: Sarah Hartman-Caverly

We often think of open-mindedness as a personality trait, but Mark Lenker’s research reveals that open-mindedness is more an activity of mind than a state of mind. Open-mindedness is hard work, and the practice of open-mindedness may be most important when we find it the most difficult.

Lenker, Teaching and Learning Librarian at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, arrived at the study of open-mindedness while experimenting with teaching methods for working with undergraduate students on awareness and management of their personal cognitive biases. 

Citing the educational philosopher William Hare, Lenker suggests that the practice of open-mindedness is “most respectful of the truth” because it engages us in the process of questioning a “false state of certainty on so many questions in our lives.”

In a conversation following his LOEX 2020 presentation, “Open-mindedness is an achievement: Prototyping a new threshold concert for information literacy,” Lenker describes the habits – and limits – of open-mindedness, the relationship between open-mindedness and intellectual freedom, and how open-mindedness can be integrated into information literacy and other areas of librarianship.

‘Knowledge maketh a bloody entrance’: The habits of open-mindedness

Portrait photograph of Iris Murdoch
Iris Murdoch

Lenker describes open-mindedness as a practice of applying deliberate, moral attention to ideas and beliefs that are different from one’s own. The concept of ‘moral attention’ comes from Iris Murdoch’s philosophical work, The Sovereignty of Good. According to Lenker, Murdoch was critiquing her contemporaries’ focus on the ethics of actions and decisions: “Murdoch is making the case that really where most of the work happens is in the spaces between those decisions, when you’re learning about the world and forming your perspective.”

But what exactly does open-mindedness look like? Lenker cites Rebecca Taylor’s scholarship examining the habits of open-mindedness in the pursuit of understanding. For Taylor, open-mindedness involves intellectual humility, intellectual diligence, and intellectual courage.

Intellectual humility is a state of self-awareness about one’s own limited knowledge and imperfect understanding. Intellectual diligence describes the active pursuit of knowledge and understanding, paying “due regard” or “serious attention” to information and interpretation which challenges one’s worldview. Intellectual courage accepts the risks of challenging – and perhaps changing – one’s own worldview through the critical consideration of evidence and reasoning.

One of the reasons that open-mindedness can be difficult to practice is that reexamining one’s beliefs can effect change in one’s identity. For Lenker, an important component of intellectual humility is to be patient with your practice of open-mindedness:

“I had a German professor, he’d always say, ‘Knowledge maketh a bloody entrance.’… In some ways, I think it’s important for us to be gentle with ourselves a little bit. And I feel like intellectual humility helps with this, right? I’m not going to figure out a way to be perfectly consistent with everything that I do – and what a strange life that would be if I ever achieved that.”

Too open-minded?

Lenker posed a compelling question during his presentation: is it possible to be too open-minded? The practice of open-mindedness occurs within the lived experience of real people, so other ethical considerations come into play, and open-mindedness has its limits. Lenker recalled ethicist Jeremy Fantl’s analysis of inviting problematic speakers to campus:

“It’s good to be open to a variety of views, but you need to stand in solidarity with the members of your community. That’s another important demand as well. And you could probably do just as well by inviting a speaker with less of a reputation for threatening people who will address more or less the same subject matter.”

Similar considerations arise in relation to intellectual freedom: how can intellectual freedom be grounded in equity, diversity, and inclusion work, and what happens when these values are in conflict? Lenker sees autonomy as a common thread:

“Both open-mindedness and intellectual freedom contribute to our aspirations for autonomy. Autonomy doesn’t really mean much unless you have the habits of open-mindedness that will help you look at the possibilities and try to interpret the possibilities for what they mean rather than what would be convenient for you to have them mean. And I feel like intellectual freedom preserves the space to make that sort of exploration.”

As individuals, we also impose limits on our own open-mindedness. There will be aspects of our worldviews and identities that we deem not subject to change. Lenker’s aspiration is for students to be reflective about the openness or closedness of their own thought processes, and “to be aware of how difficult it is to be meaningfully open-minded… I want them to have that internal discussion with themselves.”

Open-mindedness and information literacy

Lenker is now experimenting with ways to incorporate open-mindedness into his information literacy teaching practice. Defining information literacy as “humans using information to learn,” Lenker’s research has allowed him to reflect on the broader significance of library work:

“[Librarianship]’s an interesting field to be a part of because there’s really nothing more amazing than someone looking at a notecard, or a book, or a Twitter feed, and getting meaning from that. I think we’re in a field deeper than we often acknowledge.”

One aspect of his own research experience that Lenker hopes to share with students is the exploratory use of print books and active reading strategies, such as taking notes on index cards:

“[This] allows me to get into the mindset of, I’m going to let this person teach me something, as opposed to, Let me find just the right article from the database so I can use it to accomplish my goal. And I’ve learned a lot more.”

For example, reading Owen Flanagan’s 2016 book, The Geography of Morals: Varieties of Moral Possibility, is what led Lenker to Murdoch’s writing on the habits of attention, and to connect Murdoch to open-mindedness. “It wouldn’t have happened if, you know, I just stuck to all the articles that came up [in a database search] for open-mindedness AND information literacy.”

Adult writing in notebook

Lenker encourages academic librarians to contextualize student research as something more than finding sources to defend an argument. Engaging faculty on open-mindedness and how it can be implemented in assignment design is one practical avenue he is pursuing. In addition to partnering on professional development, Lenker sees opportunities to incorporate open-mindedness through case studies and multimedia resources, like podcasting, that can serve as learning objects in self-directed learning experiences.

Ultimately, Lenker hopes that students will have an opportunity to reflect deeply on the role of information in their pursuit of ‘the good life’:

“Are you living a life that will make you happy 20 or 30 years from now? It’s tempting to look at information as just so much of a means to an end. But I think it’s important to have the ends in mind quite a bit as we’re exercising the means.” 

For more from the interview, including the state of open-mindedness and attention within contemporary contexts of pervasive technology, attention engineering, and information warfare, view the complete (low-fi!) interview recording, or download the transcript.

Sarah Hartman-Caverly

Sarah Hartman-Caverly, MS(LIS), MSIS, is a reference and instruction librarian at Penn State Berks, where she liaises with Engineering, Business and Computing programs. Prior to her current appointment, Sarah was a reference and instruction librarian at a community college, and was an electronic resources manager and library system administrator in both community and small liberal arts college settings. Sarah’s research examines the compatibility of human and machine autonomy from the perspective of intellectual freedom. Recent contributions include “Version Control” (ACRL 2017), “Our ‘Special Obligation’: Library Assessment, Learning Analytics, and Intellectual Freedom” (ACRL 2018), and “Human Nature is Not a Machine: On Liberty, Attention Engineering, and Learning Analytics” (Library Trends, 2019). She earned her MS(LIS) and MSIS from Drexel University in 2011.

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