My young friend will be going off to college this Fall, and I have but one piece of advice for him: Keep An Open Mind.
Starting college is an exciting time, and I well remember that experience of my own in 1961. I grew up in a small Alabama town of 4,000, and when I began my college career at the University of Alabama, the student body was double that. My high school graduating class had 61 members; my freshman Psychology class had four times that many students. Once I got used to the sheer size of things, it dawned on me that size was the least of the differences from my high school years. The big difference was in ideas.
Take that Psychology class. What I knew of human nature at that point, I had learned from observing the people around me in that small town – mostly good folks, a few not-so-good, a handful of oddballs. But a semester of Psychology boggled my mind with the complexity of human experience, behavior, emotion. Good golly, we were this incredible stew of creation, nature and nurture, pulled and tugged on by inner and outer forces that even so-called experts only vaguely understood.
I believe I made a decent grade in that class, but the grade wasn’t the important thing. It was the experience of having my young, unformed mind opened to ideas about the human enigma. That, as much as anything, started me on a path toward becoming a storyteller, imagining characters with texture and complexities and rough edges, setting them loose in a time and place, confronting them with dilemmas to see what they would do, say and think. It opened me to the notion of human possibility – and that, more than anything, is the essence of fiction writing.
That notion of possibility served me well as a journalist, where I spent most of my years after college. A character in one of my novels gives his definition of a conservative and a liberal. “A conservative,” he says, “is a fellow who has made up his mind about almost everything. And a liberal is a fellow who has made up his mind about almost nothing.” A journalist, in order to be a fair and balanced and accurate as possible, has to keep an open mind. If you approach a story with a lot of preconceived ideas, you’ve got blinders on. You don’t ask the right questions, you don’t give people a fair shake. So by this definition, a journalist has to be a liberal, and that has absolutely nothing to do with political persuasion.
I thought about this business of keeping an open mind when I read a piece by John F. Burns, who recently retired after 44 years as a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for the New York Times. Burns went just about everywhere, reporting on the beauty and bestiality of our chaotic world. What he brought back from those years, he writes, “was an abiding revulsion for ideology. In all its guises.” Those guises included Mao’s China and Stalin’s Russia on the left, apartheid South Africa and Afghanistan’s Taliban on the right. What made them alike was a brutal insistence on rigid ideology of one stripe or another. Think and act like I insist, or I will kill you. And they killed people by the millions.
What disturbs Burns about coming home after 44 years is seeing and hearing the loyalists of particular political creeds – left or right – insisting on the same kind of rigid, lock-step thinking that he witnessed in other parts of the world. “Our rights to think and speak freely have been won at great cost,” he writes, “and we abuse them at our peril.
So back to my young friend going to college. He will be exposed to a far wider world of people and thought than I was in 1961. My university wasn’t even integrated until 1963. Today’s colleges (most of them) are great melting pots of people from all over the world, with a rich stew of cultures and customs and ideas. I hope my young friend will reach out to all that. It will enrich his life in ways he may not realize until later, but it will make him a better man, a more rigorous thinker, a better citizen of the world. I envy him.