Columbia President Recommends a ‘Scholarly Temperament’

By April 25, 2005

On April 17, Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University, published an interesting op-ed in the Los Angeles Times titled “Teach Ideas, Not Ideology.” The article deals with the controversy over the Middle Eastern department that has rocked Columbia since the David Project produced its documentary Columbia Unbecoming last fall. That documentary alleges anti-Israeli bias at Columbia and accuses some professors of intimidation and harassment of students.

In the op-ed, Bollinger discusses how controversies like those at Columbia are “accelerated and intensified by forces outside the university’s gates — by special interest groups, the media and increasingly strident voices on the Internet.” I suspect he thinks of FIRE as one of those dark outside forces, though he does not mention us by name. In the modern world of instantaneous mass communication no one can expect to be free from criticism. Colleges and universities’ biggest problem is that they have a nasty tendency to do some pretty outrageous things that make a great many people in the outside world angry (see Robert’s great post on this topic).

Bollinger goes on to recommend:

[W]hen discussing matters of great controversy, it is especially important that we resist the temptation to take a hard ideological line in the classroom; instead, we must embrace what I call the “scholarly temperament.”

Of all the qualities that define an academic community, the scholarly temperament is perhaps the most vital to our mission. It requires us to acknowledge the difficulty and complexity of things, to set aside our preexisting beliefs, to hold simultaneously in our minds multiple angles of seeing things, to allow ourselves seemingly to believe another view as we consider it. Because it runs counter to many of our natural impulses, this kind of extreme openness of intellect requires both daily exercise and a community of people dedicated to keeping it alive.

Cultivating this scholarly temperament is among the highest aims of any university. It means professors should use the classroom as a sanctuary to explore ideas and to teach critical thinking, rather than inculcate a particular ideology.

Bollinger is making an important point. As I wrote in a previous post:

None of us is omniscient and we must at all times recognize that wisdom can arise from unexpected sources (this is a topic we expand on great detail in the opening of our Guide to Free Speech on Campus). Professors who remember that their students
present a constant opportunity for them to learn and are not merely inductees to be reformed to a “correct” way of thinking better represent the true spirit of both liberty and education. If more professors, students, and administrators approached the views of others with humility and a willingness to learn through the process of debate and discussion we would see far fewer of the types of abuses FIRE fights every day.

Still, the piece leaves me with two almost opposing questions for President Bollinger. First is: “Glad to see you respecting the agency of your students to make up their own minds, but where have you been all this time?” To my knowledge, Bollinger did not say a peep when his old school, the University of Michigan, passed and then defended in court its clearly unconstitutional speech code (a code that was handily overturned in Doe v. University of Michigan, 721 F. Supp. 852 (1989)).

My second question is: “How do you intend to encourage a scholarly temperament ” If all Bollinger is saying is that being able to fairly present multiple sides of any issue is a laudable quality in a professor, I wholeheartedly agree. However, if Bollinger (or more likely people down the line who interpret what he said) means that this kind of “temperament” can be enforced, then this is troubling. Professors are free to have strong opinions. Rules should only come into play when they abuse their power in some way, like the professors at Citrus College and Rhode Island College.

However, as long as the “scholarly temperament” remains a lodestar and not a
requirement, than I believe Bollinger has made a valuable contribution to the
on-going discussion of the role of the professor in the learning process.

Schools: Columbia University