When I was a philosophy lecturer teaching moral and political philosophy, I often ended up needing to make a distinction between a person’s right vs. their obligation to believe something: you are (legally) entitled to believe whatever you want (and even if you weren’t, John Locke famously argued, Honored Sirs & Madames, that making people belief stuff may be pretty darn impossible, anyway) but, intellectually speaking, you probably shouldn’t. You should believe the stuff that’s true, or factual, or that there’s evidence for believing, rather than whatever the hell you want. For example, you’re certainly entitled to believe that the world is flat, but you shouldn’t: the world, after all, is not flat. Our practices for belief formation are grounded in certain epistemic norms (i.e., you should believe the stuff that’s true, or factual, or that there’s evidence for).
This is the intellectual standard of almost any professional discipline I can think of. You would not want to take your car to a mechanic who failed to take into account the evidence for what actually works, vs. what does not, when it comes to fixing your car. You do not want to go to a medical doctor whose latest gander at the evidence for the efficacy of the surgery s/he’s about the perform on you was sometime during his residency when the phonograph was just being introduced. In fact, you’d actually think this person has an obligation to base their beliefs and practices on the best available evidence. Lives are at stake.
Is the same true for education? Do educators have an obligation – perhaps even a moral obligation – to base their beliefs and practices about student learning in the best available evidence about student learning? I wouldn’t want, say, my tennis instructor to be teaching me outdated techniques and use outdated methods to teach them. I’m paying him, as a professional, to teach me tennis, in an up-to-date way. It’s his obligation. At last year’s LOEX, one of the keynote speaker’s, educator and author of the recently published The New Science of Learning: How to Learn in Harmony with Your Brain made a similar point in relation to our field. He stated, at the beginning of his talk on the cognitive science of learning, that educators have a professional obligation to understand the science of how students learn and to base their instructional practices on that evidence. And, since librarians are educators, it follows that librarians have a professional obligation to base their beliefs and practices on the evidence about how students learn.
(What precisely it means for library practice to be evidence-based is, of course, an enormously complicated question beyond the scope of this post (my fellow Tar Heel and esteemed professional colleague Alex Carroll and I are currently engaged in a project attempting to address these issues – look for it to drop at a professional conference near you sometime in 2015 …)).
What I want to talk about here, though, is the relationship between being open-minded and following the evidence. It often seems to me that I encounter – through blogs, social media, in person, whatever – a tacit belief that being “open-minded” means “having to consider every half-baked opinion anyone has as being important.” I think this is part of a more general cultural tendency, as Bret Easton Ellis has put it, to “press the like button on everything,” and, also, an unfortunate consequence of a sort of pop understanding of the humanistic psychology movement (which I’m enormously sympathetic too, despite these confusions). At any rate, I think this is a very, very bad development in the culture, and one that has the potential to really impede creative growth in the library profession.
Look, being open-minded simply does not mean being open to all ideas:
It’s not open-minded to think that race x is better than race y; it’s factually inaccurate, morally repugnant; and essentialist understandings of race are probably unfounded, anyway.
It’s not open-minded to believe that the sun revolves around the earth.
You just shouldn’t (from an epistemic rather than legal perspective) believe these things.
So if having an open-mind doesn’t mean being open to everything and everything, what does it mean?
I suggest it means the same exact thing the entire enterprise of academic librarianship is based on: the idea that one should believe the stuff that’s based on the best available evidence. The entire reason it’s important for students to use the right sources is that, for any particular belief, we want that student’s belief to be based in the right kind of evidence to support that belief. So, tacitly, we’re endorsing an empiricist epistemology, one that states, as Hume did several centuries ago, that a wise person proportions their belief to the evidence. Do we think that means that the student ought to be “open to any possible piece of information pertaining to this claim?” We don’t -in fact, our whole enterprise of teaching students to “evaluate information” is based on that assertion being false! We think that the students should be constructing their beliefs based on what are taken to be reliable belief-forming mechanisms (the stuff we teach them about evaluating information).
In other words: librarians don’t even seem to think, when we work with our students, that being open-minded means being open to believing anything. In fact, I submit, you’d find that really frustrating. Instead, we think it means being open to figuring out what the best evidence for a claim is.
Now, applied to our own practice, this would mean things like this:
(1) Whether we should have an in-person reference desk is totally depending on the evidence of whether this would be the most effective method of improving student research skills in our library.
(2) Whether we should use this particular method of instruction for an information literacy session depends on whether there’s evidence that this method improves student learning.
And so forth.
So, for example, you might say that I’m pretty open-minded about 1, because, although there’s a good deal of evidence that, in certain sized librarians, there’s maybe better ways for librarians to be using their time than staffing the reference desk themselves, it does seem to be effective still (I’m not even sure what I think of all this – just an example), but I’m not particularly open-minded when it comes to thinking that we should teach to specific learning styles: there’s no good evidence that teaching to learning styles enhances learning, but lots of evidence that other teaching methods do help students learn. I’m open to new evidence coming in that would prove that teaching to learning styles is good pedagogy, but right now I believe the evidence that says “do something else.”
It’s important, of course, to note that it doesn’t mean you can, like, bully people into believing the evidence, or force it on people (moral problems aside, that would not be very evidence based: it just doesn’t work). I’m not going to bully you into forgetting about learning styles, or tell you you’re stupid. I just think people have a personal responsibility to take up evidence-based practice (I think we, as a profession, all tacitly believe this), and think that good leaders facilitate a learning-based culture where such practice is encouraged (something Alex and I attempt to address in our upcoming work).
So, you see, I often find that there’s a certain … confusion about what “open-mindedness” means in the culture more generally, and in academic libraries more specifically. You’re really not (epistemically) entitled to just believe and do whatever you want. You have an intellectual obligation to be follow the evidence. (Now, of course, the evidence is often inconclusive, in which case we should, indeed, maintain an open-mind.)
The point of this post is just this: I would love it if we thought a little more about what being “open-minded” really means. If we thought about it a bit more, I suspect it’s actually much more interesting – and actually a lot more difficult – than many people would expect.