Philosopher Thomas Kuhn writes in "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" that scientists need to be committed and impassioned about the problem solving process, for on that process depends the progress of science. I think you can extrapolate to other disciplines, because what is any synthesis of ideas, really, but the solution of a problem? You have a number of sources, and you seek to arrange them in an argument that relates each to another. Whether the sources be data sets or works of art probably doesn't matter greatly, at least at this general level.

If it is true that problem solving lies at the heart of original synthesis—the ability to look at a number of sources and perceive them in a new relation to one another—the ability to solve problems should follow every Bowdoin student off the campus, because original synthesis allows thinkers to contribute solutions to world problems ranging from biochemical research to athletic competition. So how are we doing on this front?

Let's look more closely at what original synthesis entails. The paleontologist Stephen J. Gould suggests that somewhere between flashes of genius and tedious, empirical and objective accumulation of information lies the path to solutions of unsolved problems. Any famous contributor to academic thought can probably describe his process with this spectrum. If these two qualities are so central, how does an institution foster them in its students? I propose three criteria: (1) the encouragement of intellectual risk-taking, (2) facilities for extended study, and (3) respect among peers for intellectual achievements.

To a greater or lesser extent, Bowdoin satisfies all three of these criteria. For example, the honors system couples aspiring students with invested professors, giving bright students the encouragement they need in order to confidently pursue new ideas. Institutional distinction also rewards intellectual risk-taking. These distinctions range in type from space for exhibitions, to institutional fellowships, to Phi Beta Kappa.

On the other hand, facilities for extended study might be improved. Facilities are important because studying and research styles vary, and as a result campus should accommodate a greater range of intellectual behavior. Kanbar is the only official twenty-four hour study area. This is a message from the College telling us, "work until midnight, but then go to bed." While this suggested lifestyle may be healthy, there are a few reasons why we might not want to adhere to it so persistently. Genius—or at least really intelligent insights—often strikes at strange hours. Imagine a thinker slaving deep into the night, "burning the midnight oil," who stumbles on a brilliant insight as the sun wakes up. In marathon study sessions or paper writing episodes, it seems like the late night workings of the brain stimulate fascinating turns of thought. At the very least, some people work better in these types of conditions. By discouraging students from pushing into the wee hours of the morning, Bowdoin might be shortchanging some of the more brilliant insights in its students.

Of the three components, peer support is most absent. Honors talks are usually attended by professors and fellow majors, but aren't widely advertised. Besides the Quill, and to some extent the Orient, forums for sharing academic or extra-curricular work are few. Classes that challenge students to defend their written or spoken positions against one another are also scarce.

Instead of writing a book, I'll propose one explanation for this intellectual apathy between students. We might idealize the student who succeeds while maintaining the impression of effortlessness. Consider, for example, the following comparison: do you find more impressive the student who partied late on Friday night, battled through a hangover on Saturday, and produced an A paper which he submitted on Monday, or the student who ate bag lunches all week, buried himself in the library through the weekend, and produced an even more original, but still top scoring paper. In other words, do we respect original synthesis, or good grades? I suspect that our respect lies with the latter, but we aspire to the former. How frequently do we even read each other's papers? Or present our work to one another, defending it against good-natured critique? For Bowdoin to encourage a richer academic conversation, students need to take a stronger interest in the work our neighbors are producing.

Considering these three components, I think Bowdoin succeeds in equipping students with excellent professorial encouragement and adequate facilities. As a result, students graduate with an aptitude for original synthesis and the ability to approach old problems in new ways. We wouldn't produce so many successful members of society were the opposite true. I've argued before that Bowdoin students are unquestionably intellectual; the point now is that we should share our intellect. If we developed an interest in each other's work, we might grow our own minds, and maybe even enjoy each other's thoughts while we're at it.

Jonathan Coravos is a member of the Class of 2011.