SEVERAL years ago, the Faculty Senate--chaired at the time by Prof. Jahan Ramazani--started an initiative that was termed, in its broadest sense, "Intellectual Community." By that we meant to focus on what is at the core of the University experience, what in our judgment makes U.Va. a special place, a place where young minds come together in the spirit of inquiry, doubt, challenge and reasoned exchange of ideas. Or, as Thomas Jefferson phrased it, "Here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it."
But "Intellectual Community" does not happen by accident. It is not a passive concept which just "happens" to us, but an active one which demands real commitment on the part of faculty, administrators and students if it is to flourish and find a welcome home at U.Va.
As I look out over my classes or over the students I see at sports activities or on Rugby Road or in Newcomb Hall or sprawled on the Lawn, I see a group of incredibly bright young people, young men and women who have had the privileges of a good elementary and secondary education, who have traveled and been involved in fascinating activities and clubs, who have demonstrated leadership and initiative and focus throughout their academic careers.
Yet I also see, with some dismay, something that I believe stunts intellectual and emotional growth. It's what I call "The Cool Factor." Everyone wants to be cool. From grade school on we are surrounded by definitions of what is cool--the cool clothes to wear, the cool music to listen to, the cool topics of conversation, the cool places to vacation. We are deluged by cool and its variants. Yet for some students, being cool is more important than anything else. What starts out as a way to stand out from or above the crowd, soon becomes a straitjacket which limits potential and opportunity.
Don't get me wrong--it is not bad in and of itself to want to be cool, and of course it's very deeply engrained in our immature psychologies, so it's hardly going to disappear overnight. But while the idea of cool no doubt is here to stay, I wonder if our definition of what cool is might not be expanded by the time we reach college--made less exclusive, less limiting and more mature. I think that one of the faculty's main challenges becomes, in fact, to expand that definition of cool by inviting you into other worlds of ideas.
I hear comments students make about "geeks" and "dorks" and "nerds"--other students who are, apparently, not cool because they perceive themselves to be intellectuals and like to talk about intellectual things. They are excited by the world of ideas, not just the world of things and commercial brands and the latest hair products. These students can talk about Nautica fashions and the music of DMX and Jay Z, but they can also talk about computers, and Nietszche, the current presidential race, Toni Morrison's latest novel, and quarks.
Sure, they can get excited about Adam Sandler's new movie and last weekend at Nag's Head, but they also care deeply about student governance at the University, about racism and elitism both locally and nationally, about homophobia and restrictive nationalism, about the quality of cultural offerings at the University, about the rise of fundamentalism here and abroad, about Ed Ayers' theories on southern history or Kenneth Elzinga's musings on economics, about what's going on in Kosovo or Moscow or Madrid or Johannesberg.
They are not afraid to allow those interests to spill out of class, spill over into the dorms and onto Rugby Road and onto the Lawn.
You, the incoming Class of 2003, can make a mark on U.Va., and U.Va. can make a mark on you. I challenge you to pick up the banner of Intellectual Community by daring yourselves to be smart, to understand that "It's Cool to be Smart," and to encourage yourself to push your minds in new directions without fear of being labeled "not cool." It is cool to be smart, and recognizing this simple fact will enrich the Intellectual Community for all of us at U.Va.
(David T. Gies is a Commonwealth Professor of Spanish. He is the chair of the Faculty Senate.)