How do you really go about changing someone’s mind?

By Dan Streib

A couple of weeks ago, James Loewen, professor of sociology at the University of Vermont, came to speak at Allen Hall as a part of the hall’s Unit One Guest-In-Residence program. He is the author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong,” “Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism,” and many other books.

The one thing that stands out from my experience of listening to and speaking with Dr. Loewen, was his ability to provoke fresh discussion and thought on issues of perception in regards to both American history and social norms. Think about that statement for a second. I really don’t know if I could possibly give greater praise to someone of any viewpoint. Not even a statement like “he completely persuaded me to his line of thought,” or “he changed my mind on a lot of issues,” quite gives the same praise. For one thing, neither of those statements would have necessarily been true of this inquisitive figure, in regards to the persuasiveness that I found in all of the ideas that he expressed to me. I actually may not have changed my mind on certain issues facing our country after listening to him.

I say “may,” because I need to think and research about the points he brought up further, and, being wrapped up in studies with 18 hours, writing columns, and still trying to have some degree of a social life, time is not a luxury I currently possess in any significant quantity.

But upon further contemplation, it becomes clear to me that no one person ever really changes another’s mind. No single person can forcibly insert his or her views into any other reasonable individual’s thought stream. It is always a personal decision to change one’s mind on any given subject.

The final change, the final tipping point, nay, all change and transformation within one’s mind must, in the end, come from one’s own conscious decision, and this is something we oftentimes forget when we credit individuals for swaying our opinion.

In reality, if another has so great an influence to transform another’s stance on any given issue, what they really have done is taught that other person something. They have presented or written down ideas, facts, or new perspectives on an issue that the learner might not have thought of on his or her own. This new knowledge or new reasoning that was presented to the student, if accepted, must then be confirmed as correct by the student.

Whether this confirmation comes about by a long deliberative process or an instantaneous gut reaction is frankly irrelevant to the fact that this confirmation is still a choice. I do not have to accept the fact that the earth is round. I do not have to believe in the so-called law of gravity. Granted, that law may be true. Granted, I may experience this law when I, in all of my clumsiness, happen to drop my books, watch them fall, and find the shocking truth that my body is not free from this law either, as I simultaneously experience a tripping sensation over another students foot and subsequently discover that my just-fallen books have made rough contact with my newly-bruised face.

Despite this convincing evidence that Mr. Newton was correct, I still do not have to agree that gravity exists. I can postulate a new theory about coincidences in relation to and occurring between released books, stubbed toes, and bruised faces. It’s my mind, and I’ll think what I want.

In the end, though, most of us make the personal choice to accept the existence of gravity. But it was a personal choice. And, given the difficulty I had in understanding why my physics teacher could not accept my new theory, I can be a rather tough case to persuade. In spite of this, or perhaps because of this, I have learned to keep an open mind about all things, even gravity, and more importantly, to respect someone from whom I can learn.

Dr. Loewen ‘s writings and views are not without controversy in my mind or in the minds of others. But Dr. Loewen always finds new ways of looking at issues, a fresh ways of explaining his views, and a healthy respect for reasoned inquiry. In other words he’s a teacher.

And, in calling him such, I can most assuredly give him with no higher praise than that.