Not just looking for a university
July 17, 2009 5:55 AM   Subscribe

I am considering the City on the Hill, i.e., an independent municipality of working thinkers with heavy access and participation in city life, politics, and education. Is there a difference in the terms "Intellectual Center" and "City on the Hill"? What are some historical examples of a City on the Hill that are lowland cities? if you believe there is a distinction in terms: What are some modern examples of a City on the Hill and what are only Intellectual Centers?
posted by parmanparman to Grab Bag (3 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I'll give this a shot but I'm not 100% sure about what you mean by your definitions so this may not be the most helpful answer.

Your understanding of what "City upon a Hill" is different from mine. I've always understood it as a metaphor for the paragon community, God's chosen example for the world. It's charged with a sense of destiny and higher calling, that the City upon a Hill has greater responsibilities (being an exemplar) than other communities do. This is how politicians seem to use it in the speeches that incorporate it, usually applying it to the United States as a whole and its supposed role in the world, tracing the term's lineage back to the original John Winthrop sermon. The "hill" part doesn't have anything to do with geography and only serves to invoke the idea that the rest of the world should be looking "up" to this community.

I would interpret the term "intellectual center" as designating a place where a lot of diverse intellectual activity happened, and where that activity was woven into the local culture. My own definition of this would be that it's just not a university town, but also a place that has a lot of intellectual institutions (used in the loosest sense... not just museums, libraries, etc., but strong communities for the arts in general). Most of the major metropolises in the US would fit this definition, and probably other communities as well. The example that springs to mind for me (as the one I have the most experience with) would be the Boston-Cambridge area, where the local universities are not just significant in and of themselves but also feed into the surrounding area in the form of supplying ideas and people to businesses and in supporting cultural institutions. DC, with its network of universities that connect with think tanks, policy institutes, etc. would be another one, along with its massive wealth of cultural institutions.

As for examples of the City upon a Hill, following my understanding of the term, I don't really know that there is one. I suppose the most natural designate for it (given where John Winthrop ended up) would be Boston for historical reasons, but I don't think it applies to any community that's ever existed, because all the great cities of the world have their flaws and their rotten parts. Per your definition, I don't think I can answer, as I'm not sure what you mean by an "independent municipality": do you mean something that's a city in its own right (that is to say, Manhattan, Brooklyn, etc., being sections of New York City, would not count)? Or a "city-state" like DC/the way other countries' capital cities often are (Mexico City, Seoul, etc.)? Or something else?
posted by Kosh at 8:21 AM on July 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'd say that my beloved Madison does pretty well in this arena, and not just because both the main university administration building and the Capitol are neatly perched on two hilltops connected by a delightful shopping street.

Sure, it's a university town, but there are plenty of other artistic and cultural movements around town that keep it hopping.
posted by Madamina at 10:16 AM on July 17, 2009

There really isn't any such thing. However, there are cities in America with a strong intellectual/university flavor. For example, Boston (MIT, Harvard, a few other universities), or Davis, CA (so small the university dominates life and is the largest employer and cultural resource). Or Los Alamos, if you want a bunch of scientists.
posted by twblalock at 1:20 PM on July 17, 2009

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