taking ideas especially seriously

From “The Temple,” a lecture by Roderick T. Long at the Auburn Philosophical Society’s roundtable on “The Idea of the University” (12 April 2002):

The mind’s grasp of itself is valuable, not so much for what it makes possible – though what it makes possible is nothing less than the fruits of civilization itself – as for what it is: the status of freedom rather than bondage. But a free mind must also be a disciplined mind; the notion that intellectual discipline is an obstacle to intellectual freedom and creativity is on a par with the suggestion that my physical motions are freer and more creative than a gymnast’s, because they are less disciplined.

It is sometimes debated whether the university’s function should be to transmit the inherited wisdom of tradition, or to question that heritage and open ourselves to dissenting points of view. This way of stating the question is a confusion. The call to challenge inherited wisdom and open ourselves to dissenting points of view is itself one of the chief bits of wisdom we have inherited from our tradition; our heritage is an indispensable education in dissent. Hence if we wish to challenge our heritage, we must begin by learning from it, and if we wish to learn from it, we must end by challenging it. Confronting tradition is not a monologue, either from the past addressed to us or from us addressed to the past, but a conversation.

Our life with one another in the university also takes the form of a conversation. Contrary to what is sometimes claimed, however, the goal of academic conversation is not mutual tolerance and respect. Tolerance and respect are presuppositions of the conversational process, not its goal. The goal is nothing less than power. But the power in question is that of intellectual self-command – a power that is enhanced, not diminished, through engagement with the like power of others. To describe the university as a sacred temple is not to say that it should be a place of solemn demeanour, hushed tones, and reverential deference. Within the bounds of civility, university life should be characterized by free-wheeling and vigorous exchange, raucous and impassioned dissent, and even, when appropriate, withering scorn. Such boisterous behaviour is the natural expression, not of taking ideas lightly, but of taking them especially seriously.

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