Editor’s Note: UVA isn’t a place or a thing

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Stephen Nachmanovitch and his mentor Gregory Bateson locked horns in a game of chess at the Esalen Institute, Bateson’s cliffside home near Big Sur, in 1979. Photo: Michael Stulbarg. Photo: Michael Stulbarg Stephen Nachmanovitch and his mentor Gregory Bateson locked horns in a game of chess at the Esalen Institute, Bateson’s cliffside home near Big Sur, in 1979. Photo: Michael Stulbarg. Photo: Michael Stulbarg

UVA employs almost 15,000 people and another 20,000 are enrolled there as students. Of the people who move to Charlottesville for work, nearly every one of them has some connection to the University. The “town and gown” relationship is a false dichotomy left over from a time when being from town meant your social caste separated you from life on Grounds. As our little city grows its professional economy, even the people with no connection at all to UVA are here because of it.

I still find myself falling into the “townie” mode sometimes, grumbling about traffic, rolling my eyes at a perceived hullabaloo in the academic hen house, or coming to a gentle boil while eavesdropping on some masters of the universe conversation between Darden first years out for a night of chest thumping. Silly, since I far more frequently wind up in cool interactions on the soccer field, in my neighborhood, or on the job with people who work and teach at UVA. It’s so easy to think of universities as things or places, but they’re not really that at all.

When was the last time you saw the headline, “Philosophy grad student shoots down Hegelian dialectic”? Big game victories, political squabbles, and salacious campus crime all warrant headlines, but scholarship, in general, doesn’t. Have a Ph.D. and want some ink? Get a patent and we’ll talk. The recent obsession with universities as economic engines has heightened the scrutiny over their governance and funding priorities, but it’s also further obscured the fact that most people in the academy live in a totally impractical world in which nearly every interaction involves the codification of highly-evolved abstract ideas that most of the rest of us regard as extraneous. Academia is a place where theory is real, possibly even more real than “reality.”

For this week’s cover story, I followed the breadcrumb trail of two hot-button catchphrases on Grounds (“town-and-gown approach” and “interdisciplinary studies”) and wound up discovering a scholar who never liked being part of the academy but whose ideas have the potential to unify it. Want to know what it looks like when eminent thinkers engage in mortal combat in front of a live audience? Interested in expanding your mind or, perhaps, even blowing it? Ever wish institutions of higher learning were more like Hogwarts? Pull up a chair.

 

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