13 February 2015

A Personal Statement of Scholarly Purpose

[Note: If I were in charge of my own college or university, the following is what I would put on page one of its handbook. It reflects only my own convictions, not necessarily those of my current employer, those of any past or potentially future employer, or those of anyone else.]


The purpose of an institution of higher learning is to push forward the frontiers of knowledge and to beat new paths into unexplored regions of ignorance. Our mission is to use the knowledge we discover to serve humankind. We believe this purpose and this mission are honorable and worthy of our professional dedication.

We will therefore preserve and pass on to future generations in sacred trust what we believe we have discovered, but we will never presume to possess the final word on open, contested, or controversial ideas; we will ask others to learn and consider what we profess, but will not seek to limit what others may deem worthy of exploration, investigation, acceptance, or rejection; and we will face and engage differing ideas, but we will not denigrate or demean them, or the people who hold them, merely because they conflict with what we already believe.

We understand that we can achieve neither our purpose nor our mission if we peremptorily rule some avenues of inquiry out, prevent some ideas from receiving a full hearing, or rest content in the pretense that we already know what we need or will need to know.

This means we will continually and robustly exercise the freedom to investigate and examine new ideas, to review our prejudices and settled beliefs critically and regularly, and to confront, in good faith, lines of thought with which we are unfamiliar or even uncomfortable. We will judge ideas, assertions, claims, proposals, hypotheses, and conjectures on their merits. If we believe they are false, we will seek to refute them with arguments and evidence; if we cannot refute them, we will accept them, but only tentatively and with a vigilant eye toward future arguments or evidence that may overturn them.

This is the essence of a liberal arts education, without which we are no longer an institution of higher learning. We are the inheritors of a noble millennia-long tradition seeking unfettered inquiry, and we honor that heritage by protecting, preserving, and continuing it. If we cease, limit, or restrict our explorations, we betray not only our purpose and mission but also our solemn duty as scholars. In voluntarily deciding to join the life of the gown, we humbly but resolutely accept, affirm, and attest our charge with the seriousness its importance warrants, and we pledge to uphold and defend its integrity against all those who would corrupt it.

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