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Commentary

Teach Ideas, Not Ideology

April 17, 2005|Lee C. Bollinger | Lee C. Bollinger is president of Columbia University.

This is a time of enormous stress for American colleges and universities.

Conflict and controversy have been roiling many of our nation's campuses. Columbia, where I am the president, is one of them. Over the last several months, an intense, often angry debate has arisen over the manner in which some professors have addressed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and whether those professors have been intimidating students who express opposing viewpoints in the classroom.

Elsewhere, there's been a national media campaign to stop University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill from speaking at Hamilton College and widespread criticism of Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers for his comments on women in math and science. Conservative activist David Horowitz and Students for Academic Freedom continue to pressure colleges and universities around the country over what they say is a left-wing bias in university classrooms.

Of course, it is hardly unprecedented for universities to make news, or for a professor to provoke a political firestorm. But today, that process is accelerated and intensified by forces outside the university's gates -- by special interest groups, the media and increasingly strident voices on the Internet. In the week after a professor at our university called for "a million Mogadishus" to stop what he saw as America's colonizing hubris, I received more than 20,000 e-mails and the phone lines in my office became inoperable. The professor had to be moved to an undisclosed new apartment because of threats.

Turbulent times pose enormous challenges to the teaching profession. Professors, like most Americans, have strong views about politically charged subjects. Anyone who has been a teacher knows how easy it is to be pulled into the fray -- to use the podium as an ideological platform, to indoctrinate a captive audience of students, to play favorites with the like-minded and silence the others.

In times like these, some question whether universities should even be teaching sensitive subjects like the Middle East or 9/11. But universities, as institutions committed to free inquiry, have a responsibility to examine all issues. Still, when 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.

Of course, like everyone else, professors have the right to believe whatever they believe, and to say so in the public sphere. The classroom, however, is not Hyde Park Corner. Nor are our universities merely a paymaster to a collection of independent contractors who play entirely by their own rules. Rather, we as faculty members are part of a community of scholars governed by rigorous and time-tested standards of intellectual quality.

In 1915, the founding document of the American Association of University Presidents described the professor as one who is steeped in "prolonged and specialized technical training," and who is "shaped or restricted by the judgment ... of professional scholars..."

As such, professors are subject to certain professional expectations. Just as doctors must act ethically in the care of their patients, and judges must give both sides a fair hearing in the courtroom, so must professors approach teaching with a particular scholarly disposition. On the rare occasion that a faculty member fails to meet that obligation, we should count on the community of scholars -- not external actors -- to formulate an appropriate response. That is the foundational principle of academic freedom.

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