The Global Intellectual Haven

January 13, 2013

A few years ago, when I was at the University of Michigan, I proposed that the university create a global intellectual haven.  The basic idea was that (a) the U of M had acquired a large chunk of empty office space, (b) Detroit had tons of empty but liveable houses, and (c) there seemed to be a lot of PhDs and other intellectuals who were not necessarily finding places where they could pursue their areas of interest.  My proposal was that the university could unite these several realities in the creation of a place where large numbers of bright people could have basic computer (and especially journal) access, a place to live, and some kind of university-affiliated credential — a sort of “starving intellectuals” community.

No doubt there would be funding issues.  I don’t know to what extent this sort of body would include individuals who would contribute to efforts to obtain grant funding.  Surely many of these people would have to work, to support their intellectual habit.  Given unemployment levels in Michigan, the project may have run into financial difficulties.  On the other hand, to the extent that such people are already receiving federal funding due to disability, retirement, or unemployment, there could be an argument that they might as well be receiving that funding in Michigan.

The university may have thought this was an absurd idea.  Or they may be working on something much like this, even as we speak.  They may have thought of it already, or they may have drawn inspiration from my suggestion.  I don’t know.  The UM people to whom I conveyed the link did not comment.

But somebody, somewhere, should do something like this.  For whatever reason, people want to pursue graduate degrees.  No doubt most hope for some kind of employment in the relevant field someday.  But some proceed regardless — perhaps for love of learning; perhaps for lack of a better option.  In their careers, some may have to settle for intermittent employment of the intended kind, punctuated with periods of resorting to their own projects, ideally in spaces like the one proposed here.

The legend of the PhD driving a taxi is not new, yet there continue to be people who will take the risk.  And in today’s economy, it is not at all certain that demand is going to keep up with supply, where intellectuals are concerned.  Possibly the intellectual community itself would become the destination:  there would surely be some who would aspire simply to participate in what could become a rather fascinating milieu.

It’s not, primarily, that highly educated people who sit around with nothing to do tend to become revolutionaries, though sometimes that is true.  The primary point is just that there seems to be an opportunity to combine resources, in places like west Detroit, to produce what could be a future magnet community — one with downscaled ambitions, maybe, but nonetheless offering more opportunity and self-respect than many struggling PhDs will find elsewhere, reflecting favorably on the university as well.

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