Saturday, October 9, 2010


“Beware of being so open-minded that your brains fall out,” goes an old saying. But then there’s also the opposite danger of being so close-minded that your brains can’t breathe in any fresh ideas and become stagnated in their unshakable certainties. Somewhere between open to anything and closed to everything must lie the Golden Mean of human mentality.

But the greater danger of the two, I think, is close-minded absolutism, a fundamental fixation on a single perspective, on an ultimate prescription for comprehending the world and the lives of human beings by an ideological imperative, a doctrinaire worldview that brooks no deviancy, invites no debate, and tolerates only compliance and obedience to the established norms.

The struggle here is between the extremes of license and tyranny: run-away libertinism vs. locked-down despotism. What lies between is the ideal condition of responsible freedom, the freedom to think innovatively, creatively, outside the boxes of precedent and convention, the freedom to explore alternatives and discover things previously unknown or unthought—yet combined with responsible concern for the consequences of such novelty, both negative and positive, since innovation always disrupts the status quo.

What’s called a “liberal education” deals centrally with this dilemma. While it seeks to liberate the mentality of students to be open to new thoughts and variant ideas, it also respects and studies the traditions and conventions that lie behind and that have shaped today’s cultures and worldviews. Both preservation and innovation motivate a liberal education, but “Truth” it sees to be in flux, not absolutely fixed and certain; and yet not wholly relative.

Truths are provisional certainties, some of long standing and deeply rooted, others more tenuous and dubious. If a liberal education is absolute about anything, that would be its aversion to absolutism, paradoxically. That we are “relatively certain” about this or that proposition or truth-claim is as good as human knowing ever gets because learning continues: new facts, new hypotheses, new theories continually arise; while Truth, like a beckoning phantom, continues to lure us into novel dimensions of thought.