There are various activities that we are encouraged to undertake because of the way that they broaden our minds. At times this claim is merely a lure to encourage someone to do something that will in fact harm or even destroy their minds, but at times this claim is actually a valid one. Those who have a native inclination to seek after wisdom and to hone their God-given intellect tend to be drawn to activities that broaden the mind, and tend to find after the fact that there is often a sense of distance with those who have not undertaken the same journey. This is memorably discussed, for example, in Plato’s Republic in the story of the cave , where a cave dweller sees the light of day and then is unable to explain what he has seen to those people who had been his neighboring and fellow cave dwellers. The opening of the mind is something that has to come for each mind in its own way in its own time, and it cannot be induced by others. Much of what passes for open-mindedness in our own day is merely someone else’s closed-mindedness blindly parroted by others, and is not a real broadening.
What are some of the ways that a mind may be broadened? One of the ways that people broaden their minds is through intensive reading of subjects like philosophy and history. In both of these subjects, one is examining a parallel track that can help to shine some light on our own experiences and our own approach. If we are astute students of the past, for example, we will see that people operated with different approaches and different worldviews, which may seem quite alien to us . When we learn the past, we see our lives in context, as part of a larger story that began a long time ago and that, God willing, if we do not screw up our time on earth, will extend after we are gone. A similar thing happens when we study philosophy in that we see different ways of looking at the world. Even where these worldviews are defective, and they often are, at least they allow us to put ourselves in the place of others and relate to why others see things differently than we do. There is value in being able to respect and honor the perspective of others from the past and those among our contemporaries with whom we feel it necessary to express our disagreement with the way that they live.
Another way a mind may be broadened is through learning foreign languages. When I started learning Spanish formally, after having learned it informally from my migrant-farming neighbors from a young age, I learned some aspects of my own language that I would not have known from studying English alone. For example, I had been raised (in not very good schools) to think of there being very few verb tenses, only to realize that we actually did have future perfect and pluperfect and conditional tenses in English, even if we dealt with them differently than one did in Spanish. It was a mind-broadening experience, at least for me, as it was when I saw that the way that languages were constructed had a lot to do with the mindset of people, and that our thoughts and behaviors were shaped by the conventions of our languages and how we expressed ourselves. The connection between patterns of thought and patterns of language is something that I pondered deeply as someone who spends a great deal of time working with words and reflecting on what shapes those words and how those words shape my own behavior and those of others . No doubt many others have had similar causes to reflect in their studies of language.
Still another way that the mind may be broadened is through travel . It is said that the past is another country and that studying the past is akin to traveling to a foreign land, but when one physically travels, especially when one immerses oneself for a time living abroad, one gets a sense of how people approach life far differently. There are some areas we will be able to relate to, some we will find alien, and some we may find superior to the ways that we do things back at home. We may also learn things about ourselves and about the way that we and our own people are viewed overseas. This is not always a pleasant sort of understanding, in that people may view a people because of the behavior of its political leaders or militaries rather than through their observation of the individuals themselves. We learn a great deal about both personal identity and collective identity when we happen to travel, in ways that are often unforgettable and life-changing, one of the many reasons why it is worthwhile to travel thoughtfully.
What do all of these mind-broadening efforts have in common? What is it about certain sorts of intellectual study, the learning of foreign languages, and travel to other lands that are held in common among all of these activities? Among the more obvious qualities they all share is that they do two things–they make the alien more familiar and the familiar more alien. Reading, learning languages, and travel all make us more familiar with what is outside of our own ordinary experience and previous understanding. They make us familiar with how people think, feel, and live, and allow us to relate to other people and to think of those who are distant to us as less strange than before. In addition to this, though, they make our own perspectives and ways and views more alien than before, by placing us in a way outside of ourselves so that we can see how we look from the outside. Sometimes it can be a terrifying matter to see how we are seen by others, but it is important in broadening our minds to recognize what we look like to others so that we can at least attempt to better communicate ourselves and approach to others. If we want our mind broadened, it behooves us to see that this involves both seeing others as they see themselves and seeing ourselves as others see us. Even if our ways are not changed, we are changed by the process of gaining that sense of perspective about the world in which we live and our own place in it.
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