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  • The Open Mind: Cold War Politics and the Sciences of Human Nature by Jamie Cohen-Cole
  • Paul Erickson (bio)
The Open Mind: Cold War Politics and the Sciences of Human Nature.
By Jamie Cohen-Cole. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014. Pp. 397. $45.

This highly original book is a history of the idea of the open mind in the United States in the decades before, during, and after the 1950s. The author, Jamie Cohen-Cole, is a professor of American studies at George Washington University. His thesis is that during the 1950s a coterie of elite East Coast intellectuals fashioned the idea of the open mind in order to counteract the perceived threat to American democracy posed by cold war–era authoritarian thinking. They believed such thinking was manifest in the ideologies of communism and fascism and latent in conformist American culture, including McCarthyism.

Cohen-Cole weaves his broad history around the history of academic [End Page 775] psychology. Central to this history is the emergence of cognitive psychology, contrasted with behaviorist psychology, as a dominant research paradigm. Cognitive psychologists posited the existence of the autonomous, creative, and rational mind—the open mind—contrasted with the closed, or nonexistent, mind of individuals behaving mechanically according to stimulus-response experience. Only the open mind could think freely and tolerate diversity, requirements for a flourishing American democracy.

In rich and intriguing detail, Cohen-Cole argues that those intellectuals who fashioned the idea of the open mind fashioned it on the basis of their own academic lives, so they became its exemplars. Furthermore, they promoted the same open mind as a model for American national character and, beyond that, for all of humanity. This ideological conflation of the academic mind, American mind, and human mind is Cohen-Cole’s over-arching thought-provoking revelation.

The themes Cohen-Cole employs to narrate his thesis are imaginative and engaging. In characterizing the desired cold war American mind, he reminds us that, in an era stereotyped with sameness and fear of departure from the norm, at least a few intellectuals promoted a philosophy of individual creativity as the best means of knitting social complexity into unity. These intellectuals were scientists and policymakers at prestigious universities such as Harvard, major granting bodies such as the Carnegie Foundation, and leading think tanks such as the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. Many intellectuals had links to the military establishment, for example McGeorge Bundy, former head of the National Security Council. This coterie believed that elite experts should guide ordinary Americans—a belief David Halberstam famously described in action in The Best and the Brightest (1972).

In characterizing the desired academic mind, Cohen-Cole cites interdisciplinarity as a virtue and the academy as a model of America. The virtue of interdisciplinarity was obvious: it would prevent academics from becoming too narrow-minded. But in the 2010s, when the Ivory Tower is under attack, it is surprising to learn how in the 1950s elite intellectuals actually promoted their own meetings, social events, and informal corridor conversation as ideal forms of interaction for all Americans. Anthropologist Margaret Mead studied the conferences she attended for this purpose. Finally, in characterizing the desired human mind, Cohen-Cole concentrates most heavily on the history of cognitive psychology, focusing on the Center for Cognitive Studies at Harvard and the lives of leading cognitivists Jerome Bruner and George Miller. This part of the book, like all sections, is thoroughly referenced.

According to Cohen-Cole, the ideological conflation of the academic mind, American mind, and human mind did not last long. In the 1960s, the radical American Left co-opted the idea of the open mind and accused open-minded centrists of authoritarianism, and then, in the 1970s, the radical [End Page 776] American Right attacked the idea of open-mindedness itself. Cohen-Cole refers to this ironic outcome as “the divided mind.”

The Open Mind is replete with references to technology, specifically the technology of psychological evaluation. Readers of Technology and Culture will be especially interested in Cohen-Cole’s assertion that cognitive psychology was not so much inspired by the computer as the computer was inspired by cognitive psychology. Full...


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pp. 775-777
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