Paul Andersen: Fair Game
July 12, 2010
Two Walters have put Aspen on the world stage. A half century divides Paepcke and Isaacson, but the “Walter Factor” has given Aspen a lasting historic legacy.
Walter II recently rededicated the Paepcke building with a comparison: When the Aspen Institute was founded in 1950 the world was torn by war, sectarian violence and the many uncertainties of the modern age. “Sound familiar?” asked Isaacson.
The fundamental challenges of humanity have not changed significantly in the six decades since Robert Maynard Hutchins remarked at the 1949 Goethe Bicentennial in Aspen that the world faces “a crisis of spirit.” This crisis, he said, must be addressed through “The Great Conversation” of informed civil discourse.
Walter I launched the Aspen Institute to further the “Great Conversation” among business executives. The Aspen Institute of Walter II has expanded that mission by promoting values-based leadership among the leaders of the world. Both Walters have nurtured the vital cross-fertilization of creative thinkers to address the dilemmas of their day.
Walter II maintains that the Aspen Institute is as necessary now as it was half a century ago. In an age of instant global communications, he said, there is a stronger need than ever for “in the flesh” engagement of the kind that happens on the Meadows campus.
It is ironic, therefore, to see Ideas Festival participants texting during live programs, their heads bowed, not in contemplation of what’s being said, but in punching keypads. Walter I would have condemned it, having chosen Aspen because it was removed from the distractions of urban life. Walter II welcomes advanced communications, inviting technology into Aspen as a conduit to the world.
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Walter I brought informed dialogue to Aspen. Walter II enlightens the dialogue by tapping the intelligence of the day in culture, science, art, media and politics. Both Walters have brought the world to Aspen, but Walter II has scaled it to an apogee that would have astounded Walter I.
Neither of the Walters has done it alone. Walter I mined the intelligentsia of the University of Chicago. Walter II relies on a highly motivated staff and board, plus a top peer network. The “Walter Factor” has been formidable because of deeply committed human resources inspired by excellence. This derives from the mission of both Walters – to advance the tools and ideals of a just, intelligent, humanitarian society – a mission that has no end and no end of adherents.
In “The Rational Optimist,” Matt Ridley states that the collective intelligence and the innate human desire for exchange have spurred human advances throughout history. Over the Aspen Institute’s 60 years the “Walter Factor” has given thousands of people direct exposure to a dynamic intellectual synthesis that is awe-inspiring.
The Ideas Festival is one of the highlights, providing a cognitive immersion that can be dizzying. For me, the necessary balance lies just beyond the Meadows campus where the mountains exert a profound idea – man’s deep relationship to nature – an idea best conveyed through sensory, not cognitive, immersion. Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius reflected from 13,000 feet on Buckskin Pass: “First, it makes one very humble…looking from the mighty horizon to the flowers at one’s feet; then these beautiful sensations transform into an incessant stimulus of which I hope to make good use.”
The Ideas Festival provides stimulus through the mind, which is the dominant expression of the body/mind/spirit “Aspen Idea”. That’s because the mind has been the province of both Walters. In another 50 years there may be a new Walter to reflect on the same universal challenges of Walters I and II. Perhaps by then nature will have become an ascendant and stimulating idea that will touch the body and enliven the spirit in all Institute programs.
Remaining at center stage will be ideas that provide the tools we seek to improve life. We draw them from the eternal resources of nature and apply them back to nature. Ideas are glimmers of light that radiate intelligence, understanding and sympathy. Perhaps that’s what Goethe meant when, on his deathbed, he called for “More light! More light!”
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