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Excerpt from:  “Introductory Courses, Student Ethos, and Living the Life of the Mind,” Journal of College Teaching XL.2 (Spring 1997):  63-71.


Intellectuality here means more than just the ability to analyze or synthesize; it refers to something more like an overall stance. It is what we call living the life of the mind. Intellectuality includes, for example, judiciousness, an avoidance of cant, a realization that first impressions are seldom authoritative, a sense that the easy answers may indeed be too easy, a pleasure in the processes of learning for their own sake, a hatred of dogmatism, and a sensitive nose for the smell of rotten evidence. And it means most, perhaps, the generosity to admit that, sometimes, the very arguments and positions that we dislike the most either hold at least half of the truth that we would like to claim, or, worse, that the objectionable positions hold half of the truth that our own position is too feeble to contain. When any of us, students and teachers alike, can begin to live according to these principles, we may say that we have begun to live the life of the mind. . . .


Wanting to know grows out of a sense of ignorance to which all of us should be more finely attuned. We need to listen to the messages from our ignorance the way radio astronomers listen for messages from unseen planets, for such messages may carry vital information about the kind of a creature we are and how we may, by acting on such messages, gradually transform ourselves into some other, or at least improved, kind of creature. Curiosity is certainly more a function of wanting to know than of having an answer.


Too often our students’ inquisitiveness is of the stunted kind that admits no tolerance for a prolonged state of inquiry. Having an answer to some question is knowledge in the pocket. But taking time to be playfully curious, to shape ignorance into the desire for knowledge is another matter. Human existence is defined, as Diotima long ago told Socrates, by need. Living always in the space between Plenty and Poverty, human beings spend their lives trying to move away from various forms of deprivation and trying to move toward various forms of fulfillment. Just as a wise physician respects a fever as a symptom of the body's need for attention to health, wise teachers and students should respect ignorance as a symptom of the mind’s and soul’s need for knowledge.