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A Country without Memory

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Maryhill and Celilo
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2011 John Lesage


        Charlottesville & the University of Virginia


In Charlottesville, I park on the street near the town center. As shoved-aside snow impounds pools of water in places, I don boots before hoofing toward a shuttle hop to the University of Virginia campus. I see the snow as the
correct enhancement for Charlottesville’s colonial architecture. The brick, shuttered windows, dormers, columns, and pillared porches all speak of rectitude, and snow completes the picture. The town was built in a monochromatic world – in another season, grass and leafy trees would be a needless visual complication.
        Once on the UVA grounds, I further my education about Jefferson in seeing his “academical village.” American college campuses represent some of the best of what the U.S. offers the world – visually, culturally, functionally. Olmstead and sons might have designed or greatly modified some 30 college campuses, including Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Stanford, and UC Berkeley, but they were simply continuing a tradition that Jefferson began right here in Charlottesville.
        The campus is redolent of Jeffersonian values. Two miles distant from the town center, the grounds encourage a coalescence of minds undistracted by the outside world. Classrooms combine with residential space for both students and professors on both sides of the green below the rotunda. As part of his vision for the United States as a true meritocracy, Jefferson meant to foster an equality of ideas by such proximity. The best teachers are those willing to learn from their students, and he meant to minimize the influence of hierarchy in the learning process. The grounds are landscaped for learning. Jefferson here set loose some of his “pet trees,” and otherwise created an environment conductive to study and thought by borrowing the beauty and peace of nature.
        Jefferson did not arbitrarily employ classical architecture in the design. He associated this style with the most rational component of our culture, thus tapping into the main stream of Western civilization that flows from Greece, through Rome and Western Europe to the American continent, bearing logic, reason and science on its course. The philosophy of Aristotle was termed peripatetic for his legendary habit of lecturing while wandering the colonnaded walkways, or
peripatoi, of the Lyceum gymnasium in Athens. The University of Virginia provides peripatoi worthy of the ancient Greek philosophers – or of Thoreau, our foremost walking philosopher.
        Most importantly, Jefferson’s design reveals his allegiance to reason over faith. The Rotunda serves as the centerpiece of his work. It was the original university library, modeled after Rome’s Pantheon. This was in fact the first university not designed around the nucleus of a church, physically or organizationally. The school now features a religious studies program, but theology was banned from its curriculum for years. Though he was by no means an atheist, Jefferson meant to ban God from government by design, to keep it from becoming Godless.