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October 26, 2008 - 10:44am



It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood, and UD's gazing at twelve white roses in a twelve-cup teapot. That's her foreground. Her background is the Atlantic Ocean. She's on sabbatical from her university and living at the beach, where quiet autumn days and an exhilarating setting create the perfect conditions for thought and for writing.

She gathered the roses last night, from Table 10 at St. John's College's Evening of Appreciation. This is the Great Books St. John's, in Annapolis, and UD was part of the evening because she gave money to the college in memory of her mother, who admired the serious liberal arts curriculum there.

Among the things the college bought with UD's money was a bench in front of the library with UD's mother's name on it. Here UD likes to sit and imagine students lounging, reading out of the same translation of Marcus Aurelius her mother read.

The drive from the Atlantic Ocean to the Chesapeake Bay was rainy, with dark clouds over the narrows and creeks on the way to Annapolis. This was absolutely flat terrain -- soy fields with linear irrigation machines, corn fields done for the season.

Once in Annapolis, we waited in traffic for happy Naval Academy people to leave the stadium where their team just beat SMU.

"With a clear and single purpose." This was the night's theme, the phrase repeated on banners that hung from the ceiling of the softly lit interior, and UD thought of the admirable simplicity, the fidelity to basic intellectual principles, implicit in this college's course offerings... One of her favorite things about the St. John's curriculum, for instance, is the music requirement, in which all students learn notation. So clear and simple a fact, that educated people should know that language. So bold a purpose, more generally, to transmit the ideas and modes of thought actually needful.

The clarity and containment of St. John's attracts UD as much as it attracted her mother, and she's been happy to tread ever closer each year to an actual human acquaintance with it. She and Mr. UD, each clutching a club soda with lime, surveyed the well-dressed, affluent crowd, the numbered tables dressed in coral tablecloths and candles and white roses, and the student jazz trio playing All of Me. UD wasn't a multimillionaire, like some of the people being thanked tonight -- like the young, semi-retired lawyer at her table who spends most of his time reading books at his house in Woodstock -- but even her modest gift clearly meant something to the school, and she was happy to be thanked.

People -- and schools -- that openly ask basic questions about the meaning of life, about virtue, about love, are always being called naive. Old-fashioned. It's so naive to read primary documents about first things and speak to one another in small groups about them. Haven't you read... You can't open your mouth until you've studied... Technology has made obsolete... Aren't you being ethnocentric...

But sometimes, UD thought, you need to go back to first principles. Hell, maybe you've never been to first principles. You need to go there and establish a foundation for thought. The real difference between educated and less educated people is that educated people have learned intellectual discipline. They know that there are better and worse ways of proceeding to frame, think about, and argue any human matter - The question of the existence of God. How best to offer health care to a large population. Under what conditions we should harvest stem cells. Whether poetry should rhyme.

UD's perhaps quirky take on our presidential elections would have it that McCain is unraveling -- losing a focus on his policy philosophy and gaining a desperate casting-about -- while Obama maintains his notorious calm and focus, in part because one of these men took college seriously, and internalized there not only disciplined habits of mind, but arguments in favor of maintaining intellectual and emotional composure through vicissitudes. Obama has maintained a clear and single purpose because he seems to have learned the great lesson great colleges offer: That in to order to train your mind to think seriously and well about the world, you need to clear your thoughts and emotions of their customary vagueness and narcissism, and cut a clear path toward what matters.

On the two-hour trip back to the beach, UD considered, sleepily, the Bay Bridge under a gray shroud at one in the morning. Tomorrow at the ocean would be another clear day.


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