I have known Wilfred McClay for some time, and for a decade and a half or so, I have had the good fortune to call him my friend. It’s always an awkward thing, to introduce a friend, especially one who is as big a deal as Bill is. Certainly, some of you already might know him as a graduate of Saint John’s College—the famous Great Books school,—with a doctorate from Johns Hopkins, who formerly taught at Tulane and the University of Dallas, and used to hold the Royden B. Davis Chair in Interdisciplinary Studies at Georgetown, the Sun Trust Bank Chair of Excellence in the Humanities at UT Chattanooga, and now holds the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma. Still others will recall his name as an essayist, with pieces that regularly appear in First Things, The New Atlantis, Wilson Quarterly, Christian Post, Commentary, The Wall Street Journal, and a dozen or two other venues. Tonight he comes to speak to us on the topic of topos, the subject of place, of which his work is now required reading among academics and amateurs alike.
With credentials as impressive and as varied as these, you might ask yourself, Well, what place is it that Bill himself occupies? On the one hand, he sounds like a high-powered academic—and sometimes, Bill, I wonder whether universities are engaged in a sort of arms race to see who can give you the longest title for a named chair—but on the other hand, he sounds a lot like a journalist. Where should we locate him? The answer, I think, is to be found in his book, The Masterless, a masterful study of the self and society in modern America. As Bill notes in his introduction, he is writing in [quote] “the division between professional culture and popular culture … [between] highbrows and lowbrows. … The middle ground far from being the ground of compromise or sellout, may be the most intellectueal fertile, because it must take seriously the genuinely public obligations of the disciplined intellect. If mind is to have a place of authority in the unfolding drama of our lives and our institutions, it must speak in a resoundingly public voice.” [endquote] And it is with his inimitable and resoundingly public voice that he will speak to us tonight on the topic of Why Place Matters.
FYP Program talk, Guerry Auditorium, Sewanee, September 16, 2015