Listen Up: The First Step to Quitting Bias for Good

by Josh Pham | Class of 2020 at Minerva Schools

Some experiences are so influential that they affect our future in profound ways. For me, participating in Model United Nations (MUN), as a delegate of Papua New Guinea in 2012, and again several years later, as a representative of Japan and South Korea, taught me the importance of suspending my personal biases and greatly helped shape my rational thinking.

Just like the saying “don’t judge a book by its cover,” MUN demanded I put aside my initial impressions to accept, appreciate, and engage like a true delegate of a nation. While we delegates were often great friends outside the conference room, once the door closed and the gavel sounded, success was dependent upon data-based, rational thinking, free of personal biases.

I used to be a master of doing and thinking the way people told me to and, to be honest, I thought that was a good thing.

When I was younger, if I did not know whether a piece of information was true or false, my mind simply validated it, which prevented me from being conscious of my own biased mindset. For so long, that way of thinking overwhelmed my thoughts and locked me in a prison of stereotypes, prejudices, and a lack of motivation to grow. I lost my ability to ask questions about the things that needed to be asked and easily accepted things just because someone told me they were “normal.” I used to be a master of doing and thinking the way people told me to and, to be honest, I thought that was a good thing.

Through my experiences with MUN, however, I learned the importance of asking questions, as well as thinking differently, communicating, understanding, accepting, and engaging with others. I recognized my potential was restrained by my lack of questioning and, at most, I could perform well within my invisible box. I also learned that no matter how well I did, I could perform far better if I expanded this invisible box that was restricting my thinking, or got rid of it entirely. For example, instead of just listening to the teacher’s solution to an equation, I thought about the problem on my own, which was much harder and often took way longer to arrive at the final result, but allowed for greater freedom of thought.

In my interactions with others, instead of keeping an “I am always right” mindset, I tried to understand those I believed were wrong. I was surprised to recognize how reckless I had been in how I assessed information, as well as excited by how I was learning to let go of bias to make space for further growth.

Without logical reasoning and observation, a judgment can never be strong; critical knowledge is imperative for protecting against misleading conclusions from information that has been manipulated.

My love for MUN is unexpectedly similar to the way I put my heart into my university experience at Minerva, where I have already made extraordinary memories I will take with me for the rest of my life. The most distinctive parallel between MUN and learning at Minerva is how I am continuing to practice suspending biases and, by keeping an open mind, coming closer to true knowledge.

For example, in class, I’m learning how to come to a conclusion through a theory of knowledge called epistemology. Without logical reasoning and observation, a judgment can never be strong; critical knowledge is imperative for protecting against misleading conclusions from information that has been manipulated. Relatedly, I’ve learned how empathy and understanding always go together, and to acknowledge the importance of looking at even minority viewpoints.

Minerva is not only about learning academically. It’s also about exploring the aesthetics of knowledge together, by immersing into seven different world cities and understanding their distinct cultures, during our four years as undergraduate students. With that vision, this circle of complete strangers at the beginning becomes closer and closer every day, through our sincere listening to and understanding of others’ anxieties within the group. We share stories with each other and express sympathy whenever anyone of us is suffering from uncertainty. Such a culture of compassion at Minerva waters the seed of my love for this new, extended family of mine.

Combining knowledge with empathy can transform disputes into peace, hatred into love, and ignorance into compassion.

In San Francisco, where I have been living for my first year, in the wake of the U.S. presidential election, I’ve learned to discuss the political and social climate, both with and without emotion, and have become skilled at knowing how to rationally handle difficult or confusing moments, by engaging with the local community. I have learned to understand how local people express ideological resistance, not by physical strength and muscular authority, but by non-violent protest with peaceful chanting and praying for their own beliefs. At Minerva, as a community, we have been showing empathy for those whose beliefs have been shattered and respectfully listening to the joy of those who support the winner. We held our biases back, to better understand what caused the results of this election and how this information could help predict future elections.

I’ve come to recognize that the most powerful tool in a dispute is listening. I’ve learned to pay attention to different levels of analysis, in order to understand the problems of world hunger and warfare. I’ve used raw, scientific data to prove that climate change is a legitimate phenomenon, and to question the controversial Big Bang theory, using proof of temperature uniformity in the universe. My classes seem to burst with excitement when theories like this, the masterpiece of the 20th century, are brought into question, or when we see how a statistical graph can be changed to manipulate an audience’s views.

An open mind may not stimulate economic growth, but it will foster a higher level of humanity where love, sympathy, gratitude, and friendship are truly appreciated — and that is more valuable to our world.

Combining knowledge with empathy can transform disputes into peace, hatred into love, and ignorance into compassion. By listening to one another’s’ views, we will learn what we may have missed, or what we may have misjudged, and adjust our mindsets accordingly. It’s difficult to predict how our experiences might influence our future, but looking through my diary now, I realize how much I have grown since my first MUN conference.

I am thankful for MUN for being the first to challenge me to suspend my own biases, and for Minerva for nurturing that skill, both in class and in society at large. An open mind may not stimulate economic growth, but it will foster a higher level of humanity where love, sympathy, gratitude, and friendship are truly appreciated — and that is more valuable to our world.