In an op-ed in last week’s issue of The Bowdoin Orient (“Challenging President Rose’s political stance on ‘intellectual fearlessness’”), Professor of History Patrick Rael shared his views regarding the role of the academy in evaluating the merit of ideas and his thoughts on a concept I have been promoting since my inauguration: that Bowdoin must foster an environment of vigorous and respectful intellectual engagement on the most challenging and uncomfortable ideas, where students question their beliefs and develop the skills, knowledge and disposition to become “intellectually fearless.”

It may be that the current political environment has given pause to those who hear me advocate for “intellectual fearlessness.” While I understand the effect of this moment, my charge is not motivated—as Rael suggests—by a “preferred stance in responding to the present political climate.” I have been talking about this in various ways since I arrived at Bowdoin in 2015, including in my inauguration address, at Commencement, at Convocation, in my welcome to the first-year class and in an interview with Bowdoin magazine. This is an articulation of my longstanding view.

That said, I am grateful to Rael for thoughtfully and publically wrestling with these ideas because they are exactly what our community should be discussing. I hope others will jump in and add their voices to this discussion.

I agree with much of what Rael wrote in his op-ed—in particular, that not every idea has equal value. Far from it. As Rael reminds us, history is filled with questionable ideas and ideas that are just plain wrong. A central mission—if not the central mission—of the academy is to create and nurture the environment, the capability and the insight to parse the good from the bad, the right from the wrong. In what Rael calls the “processes of reasoned deliberation,” we are able to understand which ideas are worthy of further engagement, and which demand no further attention. And as Rael points out, this process is taking place in our classrooms, our labs and in the library—indeed, all across our campus.

I have said on many occasions that “intellectual fearlessness” is about the ability and sensibility for each of us to engage in thoughtful, honest, respectful and rigorous debate and discourse about the most challenging and important issues of our time, and with ideas that make us uncomfortable or may offend us. In my view, “intellectual fearlessness” does not presume, as Rael suggests, “a fear of ideas.” Rather it seeks to avoid an unhealthy certitude and complacency.

A critical challenge for each of us is to step out of our echo chamber and engage with others with whom we disagree in a thoughtful, reasoned way. This is a challenge in our society—a society driven by a cable television and social media mentality of only listening to and engaging with those views that reinforce what we already think. To have effect in the world, to really make a difference, we must not only understand the nature of opposing ideas, we must also test our own ideas in order to make them stronger or adjust them in the face of new data, evidence and perspectives that are persuasive.

As a great institution of higher learning, we are responsible for developing insights, creating data, finding fact and engaging, as Rael writes, in the “processes of reasoned deliberation” that informs the work of separating good ideas from the bad, the wrong from the right. Engaging with ideas does not, in and of itself, lend credibility to those ideas. The academy is uniquely positioned to examine and test many different ideas, to develop a reasoned view of which are credible and which are not and to expose the flaws and falsehoods. The ideas of intelligent design and climate change denial have been exposed and debunked through engagement and the use of facts and data, not by pushing them aside. Critically, we are also responsible for developing in our students the sensibility and skills that equip them to engage all manner of ideas wherever in life they find them, long after they have left Bowdoin. How do our students do this without the engagement necessary to develop the tools to have their ideas prevail? To this point, I have been deeply impressed by the desire in our students to work with one another and struggle on their own to engage in this work.

Rael and I agree on a number of things, and specifically on this: bad and wrong ideas, once understood and discounted, should be pushed aside. But, in my mind, this requires that they be confronted and evaluated. It requires both a “processes of reasoned deliberation” and “intellectual fearlessness.”

This is an important topic. I am grateful to Rael for his thoughtfulness and his willingness to share his views, and I look forward to continued discussion.