Re-imagining the Enlightenment Age Coffee House for the 21st Century

A few semesters ago, I was sitting in a seminar taught by James Hilton about living in “internet time.” He asked each student to tell the class why they came to UVA. Answers generally focused on the prestige of the university and the opportunity to be taught by great professors.

My answer was somewhat different, bringing me back to when I was deciding if I should go here. When I came to UVA for Days on the Lawn, I sat in on a venture capital class. I talked to the professors after the class was over, asking what this school had to offer. I learned that literally every discipline was covered: commerce, arts, physical and life sciences, humanities, engineering, business, medicine, architecture, law, and public policy.

Flashing back to Professor Hilton’s class, I answered that I came to UVA because it seemed like it had all the resources necessary to act as an incubator for the ideas and projects that I wanted to pursue.

Hilton asked the question because he was making a point about how online education was eroding the advantages that people traditionally attribute to universities. He went further to state that the value of an undergraduate education is being measured increasingly by the experiences one has rather than solely by the classes one takes. To get the most out of one’s undergraduate education, one ought to be pursuing projects that take full advantage of the goldmine of capabilities that a university has.

The problem is not whether we have the elements to pursue any idea. Rather, we lack the physical environment where those elements are constantly interacting in a manner that consistently produces and supports new ideas.

I am at the tail end of my 3rd year, and have yet to work on a project where I couldn’t find students, faculty, or facilities here to help me pursue them. As I noted earlier, there’s very few things that this university doesn’t do. However, each school at this university sits on its own island. For example, if you take a student or faculty member in the engineering school and one in the commerce school, chances are they won’t see one another on a daily basis. They are separated by their distance and by curriculum. Yet, these two disciplines are inseparable in the real world.

The problem is not whether we have the elements to pursue any idea. Rather, we lack the physical environment where those elements are constantly interacting in a manner that consistently produces and supports new ideas.

When I heard about the OpenGrounds studio I was ecstatic. In my experience, events meant to bring people together from an array of backgrounds are typically held at a specific school’s campus (like the medical school or Darden).

OpenGrounds belongs to no school; it is for the entire university. It’s also located on the Corner, where the majority of interaction amongst students of all backgrounds and disciplines occurs.

The studio will serve as a 21st century version of the Enlightenment Age coffee house.  Historian Brian Cowan wrote that coffee houses in the Enlightenment Age became “penny universities,” where scholars and intellectuals would conduct research, interact, debate, and engage in discourse. The coffee house was “emphatically not a university institution, and the discourse was of a far different order than any university tutorial.”

OpenGrounds belongs to no school; it is for the entire university.

One may question the need for a physical space in the Internet age. It is easy to think today that digital interaction can substitute for face-to-face meetings in a physical space.

Steve Jobs thought the idea that online messaging could facilitate the creative process was “crazy.” Creativity, Jobs noted, instead comes from “spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.” The buildings of Pixar were designed specifically with this in mind. “If a building doesn’t encourage that, you’ll lose a lot of the innovation and the magic that’s sparked by serendipity” Jobs said, in an interview with Walter Isaacson.

We are living in an age where universities are redefining their value propositions to students from simply a place where knowledge is provided to one where ideas can be incubated and pursued. OpenGrounds demonstrates that UVA is well aware of this, and is taking the right steps to provide students and faculty a place to allow ideas of all kinds to intersect and develop.

Submitted by Ashoka Rajendra, third year student studying Biology and Computer Science. Ashoka is also the co-founder and Director of Programs for the non-profit uinnovate.

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