College Towns and ‘The Geography of Genius’

Can a fun-to-read sociological travel book help us think differently about campus conflict?

January 18, 2016

The Geography of Genius: A Search for the World's Most Creative Places from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley by Eric Weiner

Published in January of 2016.

The only flaw in Eric Weiner’s terrific new book The Geography of Genius is that my small college town did not make it on to the author’s list of places to visit. If I had to pick a place of genius that I’d like to spend my days it would be a small college town. Today’s small college towns are really intentional communities - places devoted to creating the future.

No surprise, however, that Palo Alto makes the list - as everyone nowadays is trying to create another Silicon Valley + Stanford University knockoff. (Examples of Silicon Valley wannabe's include: Sili-corn Valley in Fairfield Iowa, Silicon Prairie in Lincoln Nebraska, Silicon Beltway in DC, Optics Valley in Southern Arizona, Silicon Forest in Portland Oregon, Silicon Roundabout in East London, Philicon Alley in the Philly Suburbs, Silicon Wadi in Israel, and Chilecon Valley in Santiago Chile).  

The places that Weiner does choose in his search for the origins and causes of genius include:  Athens, Hangzhou, Florence, Edinburgh, Calcutta, Vienna, and Silicon Valley.

Travel sociology books are perfect for me - as I’m curious about the world but given the choice I’d seldom leave my small college town. Reading The Geography of Genius for a homebody like me is preferable to getting on an airplane.

Higher ed people should read The Geography of Genius with an eye towards how we can make our own campuses furnaces of genius. What Weiner learns in all his travels is something that any good liberal arts graduate knows - it is not the answers but the questions that matter most. Places that nurtured geniuses were locations of productive conflict.  Serious creativity requires a delicate balance of discord and support.  Truly great ideas do not seem possible in places where everybody agrees. We may want to keep this in mind as we think about the conflicts that our campuses are navigating today.

Time and again, the people who make the biggest impact on the places that they live (and our thinking today), come from the margins. Those who are most comfortable with the existing structure are least likely to disrupt the status quo.  In higher ed, where our status quo is not sustainable (from a perspective of access, costs, and quality) - we should do a better job of pulling in voices from the margin. One lesson from The Geography of Genius for higher ed is that our best path to long-term relevance may be to push power and influence to those currently at our institutional margins.

What are you reading?



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