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Winter 2002
Vol. 64, No. 2

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Reason, Free Inquiry, and Rochester: The Future after September 11

"September 11 changed everything." In many ways, this extraordinarily unoriginal (and, by now, oft-repeated) phrase is correct. We are living in a different world, with the uncertainties of the Cold War replaced by the uncertainties of a new war against terrorism. And while we, as a nation, have often talked about the benefits of economic globalization, we now also face a different-and more disturbing-side to the realization that the oceans that separate us from much the rest of the world have suddenly shrunk dramatically in size.

As a University community, we-like all of you-mourn our losses and contemplate the impact on a variety of activities of the institution in the future. Much of what occurred on campus in the immediate aftermath of September 11 was extraordinarily positive and affirming of the values of the University as a community. (For examples, see www.rochester.edu/notice.) And the events of September 11 gave new meaning and vitality to our October Meliora Weekend, with its prescient theme of "freedom." From Secretary Norman Mineta to Senator Bill Bradley to cinematographer Deborah Oppenheimer to thousands of other participants, speakers exploring "freedom" gave us much to think and talk about, in the highest tradition of the University. At the same time, many of the longer-range effects on the University remain unclear and will probably remain unclear or be in flux for some time.

Many of the ways in which we could help in the response to the events of September 11 were immediately clear. From raising funds (our students raised $30,000 in the two weeks following the events) to donating blood, we can participate like other members of the national, and indeed international, community. And as a university, there are particular, targeted ways in which we can, and will, contribute in the months, years, and decades ahead, by continuing our focus on particular academic areas and specialties, from vaccine biology through courses on the world's religions.

Perhaps more broadly-and perhaps more importantly-we can contribute best by remembering the centrality of higher education to building the kind of society that can, and must, stand as a beacon not only for the citizens of our own country, but also for the citizens of the world, if notions of civilized society are going to prevail over forces of despair, poverty, and ignorance.

I am currently teaching a seminar on religion and the First Amendment with Professor of Religion and Classics (and Dean of the College) William Scott Green, and with our students I have focused on the relationship, in the minds of our founders, among government, beliefs, and education. Thomas Jefferson captured the strong relationship among these three items in his famous epitaph (which, in characteristic fashion, he wrote for himself): "Here was buried Thomas Jefferson Author of the Declaration of American Independence of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom and Father of the University of Virginia." Substitute "higher education" for the University of Virginia, and one can clearly see the linkage in his mind between the survival of the new form of government being established and free thought and free inquiry associated with the best traditions of higher education: "Reason and free inquiry are the only effectual agents against error," he wrote, as "[I]t is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself."

These words still strongly resonate as I write in the fall of 2001. The notion of "reason and free inquiry" powerfully captures the enduring importance of Rochester, and places like it, in the world that follows September 11 just as much as in the world that preceded it. Nowhere more visible than in a higher educational institution, this principle is a necessary complement to the bedrock of a government of laws, capable of recognizing and responding to error, and changing over time in response to the inquiry and learning that takes place throughout society.

Rochester firmly embodies this principle. Throughout the institution, from the first freshman courses through the final Ph.D. dissertations, from laboratory research to intellectual ideas cultivated and tested in the printed (and now electronic) world, we understand that learning, educating-and ultimately progress -can best take place when one is free to ask, to question, to criticize, and to think. And we recognize that when we adhere to these ideals, we are also contributing in the most meaningful way possible to the future of our society and to the kind of world that we aspire to live in as much in 2001 as at any other time in our nation's still young history.

Thomas H. Jackson

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