As a well-known aphorism states, where you stand on an issue has a lot to do with where you sit in a large institution or bureaucracy. When asking how Columbia ought to devote its attention and resources between its many constituencies, the same principle applies. As we evaluate the balance between research and teaching, administrators, faculty, and students can be expected to make various pleas over issues of funding, reputation, and educational quality, all while ignoring what’s truly at stake. To avoid this oversight, it may be helpful to derive the essential nature of research, and thereby remove the ancillary, bureaucratic fodder.
At its core, research is a process of systematic information gathering, of rigorous reasoning, of evidentiary analysis, of creative problem solving, and of the communication of new conclusions. By this understanding, every test we complete, every essay we write, and every contribution we make to a class discussion can be classified as part and parcel of the larger research project underway at the University. Insofar as our education is meant to be active, self-reinforcing, and non-dogmatic, we should expect the qualities of a research mindset to be incorporated into the manner of our teaching. We are not fed facts, rather we are expected to grapple with them. Where we find explanations lacking, we are expected to seek answers.
Given the interconnectedness of a research mindset and the purpose of a Columbia education, the roles of teaching and research need to be carefully calibrated for mutual gain. The University must continue to cultivate its world-class research pedigree, but the principal motivation cannot be reputation. Rather, we should hope that internalizing some of the best examples of research in practice—and hosting some of the greatest minds—will help set a standard for the manner in which all members in the community might conduct their own personal research projects.
We have all had those moments in class when a professor references a seminal work in a field of study, an article, or a book of great influence and then casually mentions that the author is another member of the Columbia community. These are very special moments, rare at many other schools. They underscore the privilege we enjoy to share an institutional connection with so many thought leaders, working at the cutting edge of the production of knowledge. We are constantly reminded of the connections that run through the fabric of the school. The student attending an international politics seminar in Fayerweather—acquiring, interpreting, and reformulating information—is intimately connected with the world-class theorist undertaking the same processes as he edits his manuscript from his office in the International Affairs Building.
Students and research faculty should serve as examples for one another, with teaching faculty acting as the vital intermediary. The student population at Columbia ought to reinvigorate researchers, heralding the urgency of generational change and the importance of equipping future leaders with the tools necessary to continue the amelioration of the human condition. The research faculty at Columbia ought to exemplify the highest standards of scholarship and stewardship, inspiring students to match their institutional and personal legacies of intellectual might. Finally, the teaching faculty at the University offers the vital channels that connect Columbia’s dual missions. Intermediating between present and future, they distill the essence of research to enrich the process of learning, preparing the next generation of thought leaders.
We have to resist pitting teaching and research against one another. Bureaucratic and organizational politics have an unfortunate tendency to distract from the mission of the university, fragmenting what should be a community strengthened by organic links. One of the most powerful of such links is the notion of research and the many forms it takes at an elite institution of learning. Ultimately, we should feel empowered that research holds such a high priority at our school. But we must also realize that its capacity to empower is only triggered to the extent that it’s incorporated into the mission of our education, as the subject and spirit of our teaching.
Perhaps it should be of little surprise that one of the coiners of the aphorism that inspired this article, preeminent political scientist Morton Halperin, graduated from Columbia College in 1958, is a former visiting professor, and won the John Jay Award for distinguished professional achievement. Teaching spurs research spurs teaching: We ought to prioritize this vital system, and not just its parts.
Esfandyar Batmanghelidj is a Columbia College sophomore. He contributes regularly to The Canon.