Paul Andersen: Paepcke’s dream |

Paul Andersen: Paepcke’s dream

Imagine a university in Aspen.

Walter Paepcke did in 1949 when he saw how powerful the Goethe Bicentennial had been for participants that summer. Two weeks in Aspen, engaged in music and philosophical inquiry, became an epiphany for many.

“I abandoned myself entirely to Aspen during those two wonderful weeks,” exalted Jose Ortega y Gassett, the noted Spanish philosopher who attended the Goethe festival. “I absorbed that atmosphere to the very marrow of my bones.”

For Ortega, the experience was profoundly inspiring. It produced for him a revelation, which he related to Walter Paepcke in the form of an urgent plea. Aspen deserves, said Ortega, a universitylike institution to promote the great ideas of mankind.

That institution became The Aspen Institute, but was, for a brief, glimmering moment in history, Aspen University, Walter Paepcke’s last dream. It was a bold plan that would have completely changed the face of Aspen.

Aspen University was brought to my attention last week in an intriguing letter from Bob Lewis, a biologist who came to Aspen in 1950. Lewis, a 10th Mountain veteran, former school teacher and active environmentalist, wrote that Walter Paepcke’s last dream is, in fact, almost complete.

“His last dream was to have a university in Aspen,” wrote Lewis. “He died before he could make it happen. Some would say that Paepcke’s dream was never realized. I would say that his dream is nearly realized. The town of Aspen is the campus and the departments are scattered all over the city.”

Lewis lists the departments: music, art, literature, ballet, language, architecture, history, planning, communications, and the sciences: physics, geology, biology and environmental science.

Lewis contends that even without the formation of Aspen University as an adjunct to the University of Chicago, as Paepcke had envisioned, a de facto university atmosphere has emerged that makes Aspen renowned as a center for culture and education.

In addition to the Paepcke legacy of the Aspen Skiing Co., The Aspen Institute, the Aspen Music Festival and School, and the International Design Conference of Aspen, the environs of Aspen abound in programs that enhance educational opportunities.

Curiosity and time are the only requisites for enrollment, and tuition is whatever the student can afford. Many of the classes are free, including lectures, nature observation, orchestral music, philosophical discussions and more.

Aspen constitutes an ideal learning experience for the inspired autodidact because it provides a wellspring for the spirit, as Ortega experienced. Aspen, he said, invites “inwardness” into man’s essential nature, an enabling of the “inner self to live intensely” through “thinking, imagining, loving and feeling.”

Lewis hopes to add one more element to Ortega’s vision and Walter Paepcke’s dream. He hopes to create the Aspen Field Biology Laboratory with a pair of resident field stations at North Star Nature Preserve and Conundrum Creek. Not only is Lewis willing to help organize the program, he owns the land for the sites.

Aspen University lives in its many students who have discovered a fount of learning in the Roaring Fork Valley. The campus is the lawn at the Aspen Music Tent, the heights of the Elk Mountains, the shelves at the Pitkin County Library, classrooms at Colorado Mountain College, discussions in community seminars at The Aspen Institute and much more.

If Bob Lewis receives the support his plan deserves, the biology of the Elk Mountains will be readily available as yet another adjunct to this evolving university. And what better classroom is there than Aspen’s wilderness back yard?

Paul Andersen thinks a degree from Aspen is well worth working for. His column appears on Mondays.

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