Last week, as I explained in Friday’s newsletter, we spent the evening in Charlottesville, VA on our way to Asheville, NC. I wanted to see Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and revisit my brother’s alma mater, UVA.
Monticello was remarkable for its complete lack of information about Thomas Jefferson. He was our third president, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and a huge influence on Abraham Lincoln. Jefferson designed that house that we spent $30 per person to tour and the nearby University of Virginia, but none of that information was on display in his house. All the signage and movie clips were located about 100 yards from the house in the quarters for the enslaved people. A person could easily walk away from Monticello with more information about the cook and the blacksmith, than information about Jefferson.
Now, Jefferson was, of course, a complicated dude. His story includes both genius, courage, as well as hypocrisy and blindspots. However, by the standards of his time, he was a progressive. Jefferson’s story must encompass all that complexity. But the museum fumbled. Embarrassed by protests, the museum found it easier to simply erase Jefferson from Monticello, rather than embrace complexity.
We learned a lot more about Jefferson the next morning when we walked around the Rotunda and the central campus. The old campus is fantastic and has adorable one room dorm rooms for the honors students. The old dorm room have their own fireplaces and rockers. Walking down the outdoor corridor to the bathroom in a bathrobe is a badge of pride for those honors students.
Even after all these years away from academia, Steve and I are still professors at heart. We drooled over the little dorm rooms and the reading nooks in the Rotunda. We spent our twenties in similar cozy book lined spaces. Like Jefferson, we believed in that shiny university on a hill. Too bad that the system is actually a pyramid scheme that over produces PhDs and Masters, with even less thought for the undergrads. The system floats on the labor of underpaid adjunct laborers. And with state funds and preferential tax status takes money from all, but only serves an elite. It excludes the neurodiverse, the poor, the poorly educated. We love it. We hate it.
We loved the restaurants and bookstores in downtown Charlottesville. My fantastic meal that night was pecan crusted short rib, mashed cauliflower, and roasted asparagus. The pork belly appetizer will live in my dreams. We saw a couple of Dave Mathews-type bands with rock fiddle stuff.
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