Interpreting “Beginner’s Mind”

At Class Day on May 21, I spoke about how the hermeneutic analysis in Literature Humanities can be applied to the themes of Beginner’s Mind and My Columbia College Journey

At Class Day on May 21, I spoke about how the hermeneutic analysis in Literature Humanities can be applied to the themes of Beginner’s Mind and My Columbia College Journey. The latter is a framework designed to help students reflect on their growth and experiences at the College. What follows is an abridged version of my speech.


Dean Valentini


he method of interpretation that our students learn in Literature Humanities is called hermeneutics — trying to determine what the writer intended to say to us, assessing how the context of the time and place of both the writer and the reader influence how we understand what was written, recognizing that the writer might be conveying something not actually intended, even seeing how the chosen grammatical structure reinforces meaning. Hermeneutic analysis helps us understand everything from sacred texts like the Bible or the Quran to products of classic popular culture. Today, I am going to focus on the hermeneutics of something that lies between wisdom and popular culture: Deantini themes.

Most prominent among the Deantini themes is something students have heard me say many times: “In the Beginner’s Mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” The quotation is from the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki; though not my own words, I have adopted them and by doing so, have imparted my own meaning. When someone in a college or university offers instruction, the advice or guidance usually begins with, “You must” or “You should.” To offer these words in this imperative form distinguishes the person giving the instruction from the person receiving it and creates a hierarchy of a superior and an inferior.

I certainly could have expressed this guidance as an imperative, simply by saying: “You must have an open mind.” Doing so would separate you from me, and place me in the position of the superior instructing you, the inferior. But to say, “In the Beginner’s Mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few” serves to unite us rather than differentiate us. It places us in the same position, sharing an aspirational behavior. Most importantly, by the absence of words like “should” and “must,” it avoids entirely the sense of my judging you.

My using Beginner’s Mind this way intends to encourage you to put aside the judgment of others as your guide, and to use self-awareness and self-reflection to formulate your own assessments of the world. It reminds each of us to consider the possibility that we might be entirely wrong in an assessment about which we feel certain, and to temper our judgment of others who have made a different assessment.

On the My Columbia College Journey website, you won’t find a single imperative sentence telling you what you must do or what you should do. Instead, you will find interrogative sentences. For example, if you click on one of the 13 Core Competencies, such as “Civic and Individual Responsibility,” you are presented with three prompts: “How do you understand your own values, actions and words?” “What service projects, internships or other opportunities have you experienced that support these values?” “How might you imagine having an impact on your own communities?”

These questions are constructed to invoke Beginner’s Mind. The questions can be asked of me just as much as they can be asked of you, emphasizing that we all strive to develop this competency throughout our lives. They recognize that there are many possible ways for each of us to develop civic and individual responsibility, and they encourage each of you to imagine all possibilities. We don’t create a hierarchy of approaches and we don’t assess what you are doing. Most importantly, we don’t judge your progress; in fact, we don’t judge you at all.

There is, of course, a particular context of time and place in which we use this interrogative form — a time and place dominated by social media, where self-awareness, self-reflection and Beginner’s Mind rarely seem to enter. It is a world of self-satisfaction, self-celebration and snap judgments. With names like Instagram and Snapchat that emphasize the instantaneous, the ephemeral, the facile, it’s no surprise that the self-reflection and the modesty of Beginner’s Mind can’t even get on the platform. And social media is all about being guided by the judgment of others, via getting “likes” and having “followers.” It is hard to consider the possibility that our supposed knowledge might be wrong — hard even to pose interrogatives that reveal genuine uncertainty — when we are marketing ourselves to others.

We need Beginner’s Mind on social media as much as in our classrooms — in the classroom we are less at risk of being misled by “likes” and “followers,” and more likely to learn the value of humility.

I hope the guidance of Beginner’s Mind and My Columbia College Journey will continue to serve you well. Congratulations to you, the Class of 2019 of Columbia College.


James J. Valentini