Phoenix: A University Town


Sir Jonathan Bate

         I love to travel. Anywhere anytime is what I usually say. But southern Arizona is special for many reasons. One of the hidden pleasures of Phoenix is that it is a University town. It has a major university–Arizona State University (‘ASU’). It may be the largest public university in the US. It is certainly in the top 5. But it is not just big; it is good. It has been voted “No 1 in innovation” among American Universities.

Much more important to us however, is that they have an astonishing number of events to which the public is invited. Every week it seems we get another  notice of free events with an array of talks, conferences, films, and concerts. Fantastic speakers with diverse viewpoints usually speaking in clear jargon-free language. I know to some this will sound strange, but to me learning is fun. Particularly if there are no exams. I know I would ace them anyway!

This year we attended a wide variety of such events. First was a 3 lecture series by Professor of English literature and ecology, Sir Jonathan Bate from Oxford University. Bate is one of the few Professors of English to be knighted for his work. His book on Shakespeare has been called the best modern book written on him. And there have been thousands. His subject in the lecture series was “How the Humanities can Save the Planet.” It was very interesting and thought provoking. We particularly liked a video of Don Henley singing the Eagles song, “The Last Resort” together with amazing images. This closed the first lecture.

We attended a full day conference on polarization and civil disagreement at ASU. In other words the main topic was extremism in views and increasing partisanship and polarization in public discourse. That may sound boring to some of you. It was far from boring. We spent the day listening to speakers from the top universities around the US, including what one of the speakers referred to as the best collection of political philosophers in one room that he had ever seen.

We could have gone to the second half day but decided enough was enough. We figured that if we went for the second day we would have got so smart none of our friends would ever talk to us again. Amazingly the public is invited to attend and are welcomed when there. Many ordinary people like us were mingling with great intellectuals. And you didn’t have to be an intellectual giant to get in. All you needed was curiosity. The conference was entirely free including breakfast, snacks, lunch and dinner together with wine.  I estimated something like this back home would have cost each of us about $2,500 and members of the public would not have been encouraged to attend.

ASU also encourages its professors to get involved in community outreach. As a result we heard a talk by an ASU ecologist at the local Audubon Society meeting talking on the effect of humans on birds. Again there was spirited discussion.

Finally we heard another ASU professor at a local County Park explain the fascinating 2 billion year geological history of Arizona in 60 minutes. The crowd was enthralled. He gives this talk, or a version of it, every year and the place is always packed to hear him speak on a Friday night. Go figure!

We love southern Arizona but thanks to ASU we have enjoyed being immersed in the wonderful word of ideas. This may sound hard to believe, but it was exciting. There is no better place to travel to, than the world of ideas.  I love ASU.

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