Dean Meredith Woo to release new book

Outgoing College Dean Meredith Woo is set to release her new book “Something New Under the Sun” — a compilation of essays, speeches and other musings from her blog on the College’s website. An official release date has not yet been determined.

Woo’s experience as College Dean fueled her reflections on the place and significance of the University as a historic university operating in the 21st century. She builds the case for furthering the University’s global connection through her guiding legacy: a University expansion into Asia.

Woo takes time to discuss her personal story, unknown to many students. Growing up in the harsh environment of an emerging South Korea led her on a “quixotic” journey, eventually culminating in her home at the University.

“I remember showing up in school at 6:30 a.m. to sweep the streets with my classmates,” Woo writes. “Korea is a cold country and in the winter my fingers froze to the broomstick.”

She discusses how she “became an American” watching her son play first base at little league games.

After then-University President John Casteen brought Woo in for an outside perspective, Woo sought to learn all she could about Virginia by reading books on Thomas Jefferson and the events of his time. Her book is replete with Jeffersonian ideals, Jefferson’s victories and Jefferson’s vision for the University. Woo uses each as a metaphor or guidepost for a modern issue.

Woo too interweaves the University’s past and future, addressing outside perceptions of the University as “patrician,” arguing for a modern reinterpretation of the old southern ideal. In valuing this patrician history, Woo depicts the University as a cross-section of the greatest young, modern minds, akin to W.E.B. Du Bois “talented tenth” across countries, races and cultures — or an “aristocracy of talent,” as Jefferson called it.

Woo compares Jefferson to famed politicians Woodrow Wilson and Edward Kennedy, citing their fight for common man as members of the patrician class, despite each man’s personal failings. Woo also praises Sarah Patton Boyle, an aristocratic southern woman, for her efforts to champion integration at the University in the mid-20th century. Woo shows her measure of a virtuous person — of what would, in Yiddish, be called a “mensch,” or a good person — is intent. Though Patton clung hopelessly to numerous stereotypes, her heart, it seems, was in the right place.

“It is the mission of the College to nurture this natural aristocracy for the university, the state, the nation, and the world,” Woo writes.

The argument for a modern, meritocratic patrician class glazes over the substantial correlation between parental income and standardized tests, but it nonetheless displays Woo’s respect for the caliber of both student and study at Mr. Jefferson’s University. This aristocracy, she argues, requires a common understanding of virtue, which the University has an obligation to cultivate. Woo recognizes economic realities, but appeals to a higher ideal and urges students to see college as a family, rather than an investment.

Woo opens her discussion of virtue with a history of the University’s vaunted honor system. However, she glosses over the many concerns students — especially international students with whom she so deeply identifies — have about the system. The essay’s place in the section on virtue, with the advantage of hindsight, misrepresents problems the Honor Committee readily admits are inherent in the experience of many international and minority students.

Some of the premises of Woo’s essays — especially her essay about Semester At Sea’s stop in Ghana — are but a thin excuse to discuss interesting historical issues, which gives the book a somewhat disjointed feel. Each essay, however, flows smoothly and moves quickly, keeping the reader engaged throughout.

To Woo, the world’s future is moving east, but the atmosphere is ripe for cultural misunderstandings. She suggests that a liberal arts university combining historical studies and scientific discovery could provide the perfect connection between Chinese and American shores.

“[The Chinese] won a moral claim against the West that still motivates them, a sense that the future is now theirs, set free by a technological prowess that no longer belongs exclusively to the West,” Woo said.

Throughout the book, Woo cites famous scholars, incorporates and contests philosophical schema and casually drops Latin phrases, a small gift for the high school classics student in me. The Honor Committee could not accuse her of a failure to cite sources.

Woo’s case for the liberal arts, and her own Bowdoin education, is more theoretical than practical. “Part of the problem is that the value of the intelligence that the liberal arts seek to foster is largely immeasurable and unquantifiable,” Woo writes.

The word “Zeitgeist,” or the “culture of the times” in German, finds its way into many of Woo’s essays. She suggests various cultural icons such as Jimi Hendrix, Madonna and Steve Jobs, are a mechanism to view their era’s “Zeitgeist.” Woo seems to study the culture of those around her rather than feel a part of it.

In detailing her role as an administrator, Woo’s discussion of paying professors, conducting faculty searches and getting creative with budgets gives rare insight into what the day-to-day worries of the University’s most prominent dean actually were.

“As we remap the intellectual strengths of the College, we also need to make choices about the areas — or subfields — that need to be accentuated and nurtured, as we prune weak or unnecessary branches,” Woo writes.

At other times, Woo seems to revel in the student experience, in her own way.

“But as time ran out on Georgia Tech, I joined the cheers as a mass of orange and blue poured down the hill, the way that nature loves to fill a vacuum, right past those signs that say ‘No Spectators Allowed on the Field’,” Woo wrote in an essay from October 2011 (back when Virginia football was worth discussing). Elsewhere Woo, an avid baseball fan, uses the growth of international players in baseball as an analogy to the benefits of globalization.

Woo’s book seeks to validate her tenure — her eastward orientation and her liberal arts focus. The book, which reads like the set of unrelated essays it is, engages the reader in Woo’s vision for the University and, most importantly, the students it produces. Above all else, the book shows that a distant administrator, with whom students had little interaction, had a vision with students at its core — and, for that, we are thankful.

Published April 28, 2014 in Arts and Entertainment, tableau

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