Years ago, philosopher, classicist and educator Paul Woodruff liked to say — in a tender, awed voice — that the mammoth University of Texas campus collected together in one place the highest number of bright young people in the country, perhaps the world.
These days, enrollment is higher at nine other colleges in the United States. At the risk of rekindling ancient interscholastic rivalries, however, maybe two of those behemoths — please don’t make me name them! — come close to UT’s intellectual heft as commonly measured.
Similarly, Austin is home to one of the highest concentrations of smart people in the country.
More than half of the adult population is college educated. According to the U.S. Census and CityLab, the other nine big cities in the Top 10 rankings for college education are — you won’t be surprised — Seattle; San Francisco; Washington, D.C.; Raleigh, N.C.; Minneapolis; Portland, Ore.; Denver; Atlanta; and Boston.
So it’s no shock to discover that Austin’s ample arts, cultural and educational institutions have plunged deep into intellectual discussions online during the coronavirus lockdown.
The Paramount Theatre, for instance, has launched a new digital interview series, "Paramount Conversations." Produced along with Zodiac Studios, the first episode opens with movie-quality credits and a short, sharp introduction from Jim Ritts, executive director of the Paramount Theatre, that includes an explanation about the safety guidelines used while making the show.
That initial 50-minute episode pairs Austin author Lawrence Wright with Texas Tribune CEO and co-founder Evan Smith at paramountconversations.org.
Smith, of course, is among the smoothest, smartest, most nimble interviewers in town. He matches well with Pulitzer Prize-winner Wright, whose latest novel, "The End of October," concerns a devastating global pandemic set in spring 2020.
Yes, he wrote it long before the coronavirus crisis, and when the book came out on April 28, Wright was once again the talk of the national cultural scene. (Weird tidbit: CNN’s Anderson Cooper apparently dies in the story, but Wolf Blitzer lives, according to the Kirkus Reviews.)
In this episode, Evans speaks from a box seat at the Paramount, while Wright responds from home. When Evans points out how accurately Wright predicted the current pandemic, down to what the president might say, he asks: "Are you God? Are you Nostradamus? What is wrong with you? How do you know this?"
The Paramount Conversations website includes a handy link so you can purchase "The End of October" from BookPeople. A second episode launches May 20 with professor, inventor and best-selling author Temple Grandin interviewed by Duncan Strauss ("Talking Animals" radio show and podcast host).
Meanwhile, the LBJ Foundation has launched a new podcast, "With the Bark Off: Conversations from the LBJ Presidential Library." The podcast’s title comes from something President Johnson said at the library's dedication in 1971: "It's all here, the story of our time — with the bark off."
You might recognize the interviewer’s voice. It’s Mark K. Updegrove, CEO and president of the LBJ Foundation, an author, presidential historian and frequent guest on national TV news programs. His most recent book was "The Last Republicans: Inside the Extraordinary Relationship Between George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush."
Updegrove, heard via Simplecast at with-the-bark-off.simplecast.com, is every bit Evans’ equal as an interviewer.
Among the newly recorded conversations is one with Dr. David M. Oshinsky, who won a Pulitzer Prize for "Polio: An American Story." He puts the coronavirus crisis into perspective. Another episode welcomes Jean Becker, longtime chief of staff to President George H.W. Bush, along with Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, 41’s grandson.
The three of them chat about first lady Barbara Bush. Becker is the editor of "Pearls of Wisdom: Little Pieces of Advice (That Go a Long Way)," regarding what she learned from the late first lady.
"With the Bark Off" also includes audio versions of greatest hits from the past, such as a Jan. 30, 2020, interview with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and another from April 27, 2017, with documentary maker Ken Burns.
One of the latest podcast guests for Updegrove? Lawrence Wright, the man of the hour.
Upcoming guests include Dan Rather and Dr. Peniel E. Joseph, who will be speaking about his new book, "The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr."
The Blanton Museum of Art is not conducting interviews in this style, but it offers a weekly livestreamed "Curated Conversations" at 5 p.m. Tuesday. These Zoom sessions — for more info, go to bit.ly/35RAaG4 — feature cultivated Blanton curators and other staff members who give short thematic presentations followed by questions from viewers in real time.
One recent presentation, timed for Mother’s Day, was "What Makes a Mother: Variations on the Maternal in Art." It teamed up curators Holly Borham and Rosario Granados, as well as Blanton fellow Chrissy Zappella.
According to a Blanton spokesperson, the Zoom events have attracted between 75 and 100 guests. You can watch past episodes of "Curated Conversations" on YouTube at bit.ly/3dDlgWp. Among the topics: a woman’s place in the artistic canon, mail art in Latin America and behind the scenes at Ellsworth Kelly’s "Austin."
There’s a lot more to feed your mind out there. Now you can start out with an Austin videocast, a podcast and a livestreamed conversation.