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An Academic Outpost of Heaven

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There's a particular alternate reality experience that I highly recommend. It happens to take place at an academic outpost of heaven.

Forty five minutes of hot-foot driving from the nearest commercial airfield, up an interstate highway that winds higher into the mountains with every turn, you get off at the right exit and several minutes later down the blacktop, you pass through a stone gate that might as well be the entrance into an alternative universe. Around a curve, out of the mountain mist and extensive thick forest of the Cumberland Plateau, there arises a beautiful stone gothic university whose mythic appearance instantly signals that you're not in Kansas anymore. The air is cool and crisp. The light seems different, as if from another place and time, filtered to enhance the colors of the grass, trees, and shrubs all around, while highlighting the locally quarried stone that rises up around you like an ancient shrine to something you can't quite put your finger on. But you can feel it.

If you're lucky enough to arrive at just the right time, you can see students from all over the world walking to class, often in the company of their professors, who are all garbed in old, black academic robes, as they always are for the sessions of the mind and heart that are about to take place. The clock tower chimes across the hills, and it's time for Homer, or Plato, or Bach to reach out across the centuries and touch some lives anew.

I was very lucky to be a Morehead Scholar at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in the early seventies, when the sixties really happened, and then a University Fellow at Yale for six years, and a professor at the University of Notre Dame for fifteen more. And I've visited many of the best and most interesting colleges and universities in the country, where I've often had the honor of lecturing to students, faculty, staff, and even the surrounding public. But nothing had fully prepared me for a recent sojourn into a new mythic country where the presentness of the past is ubiquitous and palpable.

My wife and I arrived at a Civil War era home in the center of the sprawling thirteen thousand acre campus that's now a bed and breakfast for university guests. The floors creaked out a greeting as we walked across the entry, a brass key opened the door of the Chancellor's Suite, and the ghosts of seminars past were already there, sitting on brocade chairs to welcome us in their special way. My wife prepared the tub for a nice warm bath, and then called to me in the next room that the hot water would not turn off. It was gushing out with force, continuing to fill the old tub. Steam enveloped the place, reflecting the fog that often descends on the mountain. We pulled the drain. But the poltergeist of the place had it partly plugged, just to see what we'd do as the bubbling water kept rising.

Taking up a white plastic wastebasket, the one nod to modernity in our otherwise classic lodgings, we began to bail out water and dump it in the sink - twenty cans, then thirty, then more. It was as if Lucy and Ethel had checked into a hotel and gotten into a fix, and Ricky and Fred were about to show up at the door. In a short time, a plumber arrived and looked as perplexed as if he had been asked to evaluate the famous ontological argument for the existence of God. While he consulted with colleagues on the radio, I was given another key for a room upstairs where I could freshen up and change before the formal events of the evening were to unfold. At the end of a nice shower, the hot water would not turn off. I tried three times and laughed out loud. I had heard about the ghosts before I got there. Then, having had my big laugh - which I think was the point - I managed to get the water to shut off, changed into a suit, and went down to dinner with a story to tell.

In two days of philosophizing, meeting with faculty, trading stories, teaching a class, and holding forth in a large hall for the public as well as the scholars on what the great thinkers had to say about success in life, I had an amazing experience. Over breakfast in a little café off campus there in Sewanee, Tennessee, I was in deep conversation with a prominent businessman and an economist about Jeffersonian democracy. An older gentleman ambled over from another table where he was having coffee, and asked with enthusiasm if he could join in the discussion, which went on to range over education, voting, C.P. Snow's famous essay, "The Two Cultures," Costa Rica, and many other creatively related topics.

It didn't take me long to see that The University of the South, with its entire environs, is permeated with a sense of living history, art, science, and ideas. The cell phone grid can be accessed well only in certain places. So you're more likely at any given time to be talking to someone who is actually standing or sitting with you, in person, face-to-face. I emphasize this due to its general rarity now. Real conversations happen everywhere.

And it seems that everyone refers casually throughout their conversations to the great thinkers, writers, and creators of the past as if they were old friends whose thoughts are more relevant to our lives than the daily news, or the most recent events on American Idol, or even what's just happened on Dancing With the Stars.

One example says it all in five words. A wonderful, vibrant lady was in charge of the logistics of our visit. In referring to her and her late husband after one of the dinners we had attended, another great lady, our host that evening with her husband, Nick, said in a tone of conveying the most basic and important information, "Her husband taught Nick, Chaucer." It struck me that this was how the people I had met in Sewanee thought of themselves and each other. They were identified and linked together, for life, by the humanities. In the time of my visit, I could detect none of the status competition you see among faculty at many great schools, and I witnessed no hint of any pedantry or disdain on display in discussions. There seemed to be a kindness and open friendliness to the community beyond anything I had ever seen. Across the campus and throughout the small town, people were triangulating their lives with Chaucer, and Shakespeare, Thoreau, and Wendell Berry. The breeze of energizing conversations was always gently blowing across the mountain. The ghosts of the past were guiding the way, and they were having as much fun as anyone else.

If you have a chance, go visit. It's worth the trip to another place and time. Get in a deep conversation with someone there. You may arrive in a fog, but you'll certainly leave walking in the light.