Columbia President Recommends a ‘Scholarly Temperament’

By on 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 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 than 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