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Columbia UniversityThe President's Report 2002-2007
The Scholarly Temperament
(< Continued from the first Faculty and Research page)

“It requires us to acknowledge the difficulty and complexity of things, to set aside our pre-existing 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.”

This extreme openness of mind has a significant history in the Western philosophy of how one should teach and learn. It goes back at least as far as Socrates, who boasted of his ignorance and claimed that his only wisdom—and by implication, the greater part of anyone’s wisdom—lay in knowing that he did not know the answer—but was always willing to seek it and to hear the opinion of the youngest of his pupils.

One can readily find examples of the scholarly temperament in Columbia faculty—such as 2006 Nobel laureate Edward “Ned” Phelps, professor of political economics. In recounting how he decided to pursue economics as a college major and then an intellectual obsession, Phelps has said that it was his interest in a question about economic theory to which he did not know the answer that spurred him onward from his college days. He became determined to fill that vacuum. Gaps in his understanding kept him probing, Phelps notes, until he had produced theories of his own to fill them. This constant questioning, this pursuit of answers that do not fit existing theories is a trait that flourishes best where the scholarly temperament lives.

Indeed, the Columbia economics department provides a case study of the scholarly temperament put into practice. Widely acknowledged as a first-class department, it is made up of scholars who agree on almost nothing but are willing to hear each other out. They have chosen to be in a heterogeneous environment, with a multiplicity of voices and opinions, rather than teach at other top-flight economics departments that enjoy enough accord to be spoken of as “schools,” endorsing a particular theory. Columbia economics professors swim alone, but they willingly share their pool.

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