President Bollinger: The Scholarly Temperament

Fall Convocation Address  |  August 26, 2018

A great university reflects every facet of human curiosity.  It’s that simple and that complicated. 

Let me begin by acknowledging the parents and families and friends here this evening.  We really do understand the complex emotions that you feel at this moment. There is no more important occasion in the life of a university than welcoming its newest and youngest members.  The sense of renewal, for us, is palpable.  The sense of a significant transition in life is right now silently felt by your parents and families.  And the sense of wonder and uncertainty that you must be feeling is understood by all of us.         

In the few moments I have with you this evening, I want to briefly and quickly cover some very major matters, and for that I ask your indulgence.  The moment is, I’m afraid, too important—too significant—to let pass.

First, and perhaps most importantly, I want to say a few things about academic life—about its values, and about Columbia in particular.  It is really important that you realize that you are entering a world that is unlike any other.  Here, everything is all about achieving understanding and advancing knowledge—of life, of the natural world, of the planet and of the universe.  A great university reflects every facet of human curiosity.  It’s that simple and that complicated.  We do not make laws or policies; we do not sell goods or services and render a profit; we are not an institution of belief or of advocacy; our purpose is to understand and to share whatever knowledge we accumulate with others. 

It is extremely important to recognize, however, that this pursuit of knowledge occurs within a framework of norms and practices about how to think, discuss, and go about this noble task collectively.  Altogether these norms and practices make up a kind of Scholarly Temperament.  We begin with a keen awareness that we are part of a vast human effort extending over time to build up that store of human knowledge, and that it is our responsibility to carry this forward, adding to it whatever we can, and to ensure it continues on into future generations.  We are modest about our individual roles within this vast effort, we are meticulous in crediting others (past and present) for their contributions, we must always accordingly situate our own ideas within the array of different perspectives relevant to our topic, giving opposing ideas their due; and we must adhere meticulously to standards of reason and evidence in this intellectual process.  In this community, the mortal sins include taking the ideas of others as your own, failing to consider—truly consider—ideas different from your own, being unwilling to change your mind in the face of compelling arguments and facts demanding that you do, and thinking it’s appropriate to end any discussion by declaring “Well, that’s just what I believe.”    

The Scholarly Temperament is what guides our research and our educational mission, and we are responsible for living by these norms.

So, my central point is that, having achieved the singular accomplishment of being admitted to Columbia University, you have also been admitted to the world of the Scholarly Temperament.  As everyday life demonstrates, this is not an easy task, to be sure.  But you must work hard to live according to it and to do everything you can to uphold it, for, in truth, the world actually depends upon it.  Much of what we take for granted to be the basic elements of modern, civilized life originated in this realm of the scholar.  I do not mean for a moment to speak ill of or to demean other spheres of human activity (political, commercial, and so on).  I do mean to say life in this sphere is different, and what it yields over time is absolutely of critical importance to every other sphere.  And I would also suggest that experiencing it will change your own lives for the better, forever.   

And let me also say that no academic community is better at this than Columbia.  Here you will encounter faculty in discipline after discipline, field after field, who are the leading experts.  Not only will they introduce you to their specialty better than anyone else can, but they will also be able to do something few can—which is to bring you to the edge where our knowledge ends and our ignorance begins.  For the best education is one that prepares you for your own venture into the unknown.  That, truly, is an educational gift. 

Now, this leads into my second message.  The Scholarly Temperament is what guides our research and our educational mission, and we are responsible for living by these norms.  But it is also important to recognize that the Scholarly Temperament does not set the framework for public discussions about public issues that may occur, and do occur, on this campus.  There, our framework is the First Amendment—the principle of free speech as we have come to define it in American society.  (Because we are a private university, not public or state, the First Amendment does not actually apply to Columbia.  But Columbia, like all major private universities in the country, has voluntarily embraced its doctrines as our own.)  This is a very important difference and it means many things.  Of course, no one outside the University has a “right” to come onto campus and say whatever they want.  But students and faculty often engage in campus discussions about controversial issues and sometimes they invite to campus speakers they would like to sponsor or hear.  As elsewhere in the nation, therefore, you will encounter here, almost certainly, speakers and messages you disagree with, find deeply offensive, or outrageous, or ill-informed, or ill-considered, or unreasonable, or insensitive, or worse.  And yet we have decided, just like the society has decided under the principles of the Constitution, that we will be a better people, individually and collectively, if we rely on open debate and our own courage to articulate and defend our ideas and convictions rather than turning to institutional censorship for protection.  There are some exceptions to this fundamental premise (threats, incitement, harassment, and so on), but I want you to know now that here, at Columbia, when it comes to public discussions about public issues, the only way we can make ourselves “safe” from ideas we dislike is through defeating them in open debate. 

Now, there are a couple of additional themes about Columbia I want to emphasize as you begin your studies.  This University is the most international, the most global, of any in the country.  We treasure our international students.  We have great expertise about the world all across our distinguished schools and faculties, often potently concentrated in institutes and centers.  Yet, in the last decade or so, we at Columbia have understood that the peoples of the world are becoming increasingly inter-connected, because of a rising global economy, because of new communications technologies such as the Internet, and because of the realities of the movement of people (sometimes voluntary, sometimes not).  Together these phenomena have brought enormous benefits to humanity but they have also raised enormous issues and problems to be solved (global warming and climate change, conflict and wars, refugees, inequality, and so on).  We believe that universities need to do more to study, understand, and report on these phenomena.  And to that end, many schools and faculty are working to direct their attention to global issues.  At the University level, we have many initiatives underway as well, but I specifically want to just highlight the network of Columbia Global Centers—there are now 9: Paris, Istanbul, Amman, Nairobi, Tunis, Mumbai, Beijing, Santiago, and Rio de Janeiro.  The purpose of these Centers is not to endorse any particular government or policy, but rather (like the great foreign bureaus of great newspapers) to facilitate the efforts of our faculty and students to do research around the world on global issues. We have programs in place to help you take advantage of the Centers, as well as other initiatives, and I urge you to look into the possibilities during your years here.   

Photo of students celebrating the start of the academic year in 2018.

There is yet another new dimension to Columbia I want to highlight.  Recently, we have begun to think about how the University can help bring academic research and work to bear on major national and global problems, through partnerships with entities and institutions like governments, businesses, and non-governmental organizations.  Many faculty do this as part of their work already, but no university has made it a fundamental goal, or purpose, of the institution.  Columbia is doing this through an initiative called Columbia World Projects, which was launched last year and now has some actual projects underway.  One notable project involves partnering with governments around the world to utilize our capacities for making predictions about short-term climate change to help with improving food production and health in developing countries.  New projects will be emerging this year and in the future, and I encourage you to respond to calls for your participation. 

Next, I want to say something about the context in which you will be in college.  I think we have to recognize that, whatever your political views, we have entered an era of stress, even crisis, about what we think of as the Liberal Traditions and about the capacities of modern democracies to deal with the broad needs of citizens.  This is true in our own country, but it is also true around the world.  We also have similar doubts about the international framework created in the post World War II era to grapple with the new globalized world.  I know these are serious and even grave assertions, and this is not really the moment or the occasion to spell this out in more detail.  The reason I raise these troublesome thoughts is because I want you to know that the very structure and orientation of your education here at Columbia originates in precisely these kinds of concerns.  In 2019, as Dean Valentini noted, we mark the centenary of the Core Curriculum, and, as I also like to observe, the actual creation of the modern First Amendment as we know it today.  (The first Supreme Court cases interpreting the First Amendment occurred in 1919.)  In this post World War I period, it was exactly this profound sense of the vulnerability of democratic, liberal, Enlightenment values that led people to create a curriculum here at Columbia that was and remains utterly unique, and a value and principle of freedom of speech and press that would change the nation, and even the world.  There is, therefore, the deepest of connections between the similar struggles of the world at this very moment and the education you will be offered here.  Never has an education been more relevant to the world we inhabit.

My final comments are about you individually and personally.  College is among the most memorable and important periods of our lives.  For most of us, it is life-shaping.  It determines our minds, our personalities, and our experiences.  It can be exhilarating, but it can also be exhausting and stressful.  Please know that we are here for you in every sense and in every way.  We do our best to make this a community and one that offers the best experience possible.  But we do not know how every single individual is doing.  Please let us know how we can help.  Everyone on this stage, including me, is easily reachable and ready try to assist you, so reach out if you need us.

Congratulations on making this transition in your lives.  Welcome to Columbia.