President Clayton Rose has offered “intellectual fearlessness” as our preferred stance in responding to the present political climate. The appeal of this formulation is clear. It seems politically neutral, enjoining all to engage in a wide range of ideas. It suggests that especially those in majority positions should practice the tolerance they preach. And in making the realm of ideas the terrain of debate, it forestalls challenge. Who, after all, would take up the banner of intellectual fearfulness?

No one, of course; and this is the problem. “Intellectual fearlessness” presumes that our central challenge is overcoming a fear of ideas. This inaccurately characterizes the concerns that have been raised about the politicization of academic life and it diverts our attention from the real challenge.

I do not fear ideas—not of those who deny anthropogenic climate change, nor the Holocaust nor human evolution. Scientific racists and white supremacists, young-earth creationists and anti-vaccers are all ripe targets for reasoned discourse. I relish the opportunity to engage any of their arguments through our academic disciplines and I am confident that in any rigorous, methodologically sound exchange, such notions would be swiftly debunked as the pseudo-academic nonsense they are.

The only thing I fear about such ideas is lending them a credibility in academic discourse they in no way merit. I fear that it is not intellectual fearlessness that drives campuses to acquiesce in promoting inflammatory anti-intellectualism out of a concern for “balance,” but fear of political pressure from those outside the academy­­ who seek to exploit its very openness to attack reasoned conversation in the pursuit of their own power.

“Intellectual fearlessness” as yet offers us only two choices: we can run from ideas or we can engage them. As I have not heard calls on campus to cower from ideas we find too frightening, perhaps we may all then safely consider ourselves fearless engagers of some sort.

The question, then, is not whether we will engage controversial ideas, but how. All ideas cannot deserve the same consideration, after all; otherwise every crackpot seeking a forum would be entitled to one on campus, regardless of the absurdity of their reasoning, the cost of bringing them or their lack of social significance.

A vast range of possibility remains to be parsed—from offering Milo Yiannopoulos ungodly sums of cash for delivering a prominent and widely promoted evening lecture in Kresge, to classes in which small groups of students and faculty subject close readings of his speeches to critical analysis.

The good news is that we are well positioned to do this work. Distinguishing between the relative merits of arguments, and deciding whether or how we wish to address them as an academic community—that is what faculty members trained for and what we are charged to teach. It is our exact purpose.

Are Richard Lynn’s claims that race maps IQ differences best taught in a biology course on human evolution, or an anthropology course on the development of scientific racism? Should we study Holocaust denial as one among many plausible historical interpretations, or as a manifestation of antisemitism? What exactly does it mean for human evolution to be a “theory”? Can we study the impact of Christianity in our history and in our lives without being Christians, or endorsing Christianity? What about Islam? Is it possible to discuss scientific evidence on climate change without being “political”? What social effects of immigration policies are measurable? As scholars and educators, our daily lives are consumed by such concerns. We can even apply our academic training to studying this very connection, between politics and academics, which I am discussing now.

Engaging ideas happens not in a moment, but through a process. It begins in the classroom, the lab and the library. Only sometimes need it land on the front page of the Orient, or the Washington Post. We may never reach consensus on innumerable matters in dispute. But in the process we will have learned and honored the basis of all academic life: ideas should be judged not on whether we like them or not, but on how they emerge from processes of reasoned deliberation.

College campuses are languishing sanctuaries for these difficult, unfashionable values. We are here because generation upon generation of humans learned the hard way that when information becomes the property of the mob, the authoritarian or the oligarch, terrible outcomes ensue for humanity and the planet.

Principles like academic freedom stand as testimony to previous generations’ hard-won wisdom: ideas serve us best when they emerge from reasoning processes that are ultimately independent of politics. We learned that the earth revolves around the sun even if the church disagreed; we learned that the idea of human “races” served primarily to enslave, oppress or exterminate those defined as inferior.

We do not treat all ideas equally, and not simply because we lack the resources to promote them all. The standards of our disciplines tell us that some ideas deserve to be exposed as unreasonable and unworthy of further consideration, except as studies in the ways power corrupts the development of knowledge.

The truth is that we stand for the remarkable proposition that all ideas are not equal, and that through discipline and training, we can develop tools for usefully distinguishing which deserve our commendation, which our scorn and which our utter neglect.

Nothing about this is intellectually fearful. Amidst a public culture steadily retreating from the rigors of rational debate, we are committed to valuing knowledge as more than a tool of power. We are fiercely dedicated to working through methodologies that are explicitly apolitical. We commit to that because we know that we as individuals are not.