The following article appeared in the New York Times for Sept. 17, 2000. A website still exists for We the People, and it provides access to many papers and other materials relating to the proceedings described here. Particularly interesting is the transcript of Jerry Brown's radio show with Ivan Illich and Carl Mitcham as guests. (Just follow the links at the left side of the page.) Unfortunately, the phone numbers provided for We the People are not in service, so there's no information available about where one might obtain the audio recordings of this broadcast that also are mentioned on the site.
Intellectual Forum Brings Jerry Brown to the Table
By PATRICIA LEIGH BROWN
OAKLAND, Calif., Sept. 16 — The phrase ''back to school'' has acquired new meaning here. It's time to grab the ballpoints, the highlighters and the 450-page binder of reading materials and head over to the mayor's house for a little ''Medieval Philosophical Latin: Part 1.''
Call it Jerry 101. Mayor Jerry Brown, former presidential candidate, former governor and former Jesuit seminarian, has invited the citizenry of this city on the move to participate in the Oakland Table, a casual intellectual exchange over six weeks -- a sort of Ivory Tower in a loft -- in which two dozen scholars, headlined by the historian and philosopher Ivan Illich, have been brought in to ponder the city, citizenship and the deep meaning of it all.
Part salon, part graduate school seminar, it may be the northern California equivalent of Dorothy Parker's Round Table at the Algonquin in the 1920's in Manhattan, except that instead of whiskey and cigarettes, there are tai chi and yoga classes in an adjoining room.
''Socrates said, 'The unexamined life is not worth living,' so we're examining it,'' Mr. Brown said the other day, having spent two hours ''in colloquy,'' where the discussion drifted from Daedalus to whether washing dishes constituted slavery.
''The big question is,'' Mr. Brown said, '' 'How do we create a place?' The 'Oakland Think Tank' sounded too cerebral. The word 'table' is a great metaphor for urban civitas.''
The Table, which will be held twice a year for three years, is being financed with $120,000 from the We the People Foundation, the nonprofit educational organization Mr. Brown started in the mid-1990's before becoming mayor. The speakers, who have turned Mr. Brown's quasi-communal loft building in Jack London Square into a Zen-like faculty club, include the architectural theorist Joseph Rykwert and the Mexican intellectual and activist Gustavo Esteva. One result will be a book, Mr. Brown said.
The seminars, alternately resembling town meetings and academic encounter groups complete with surreptitious doodling, have been drawing an eclectic following, from faithful students of Mr. Illich, the author of the 1970 book ''Deschooling Society,'' which influenced the home-schooling movement, to people like Bruce Miller, a banker, who says he finds the subjects, which focus on civic engagement, ''provocative.''
''It's just like college,'' Mr. Miller said, ''except that you don't have to write papers.''
The Table has also attracted plenty of interlopers from nearby Berkeley, including Debbie Moore, organizer of the ninth annual Nude and Breast Freedom Parade to be held on Sunday in Peoples Park, who believes that the presence of nude bodies can soften cities and ''tenderize the sidewalk,'' she said.
Not present were Brown critics like Wilda White, president of the Jack London Neighborhood Association and an Oakland school board member, who do not approve of pointy-headed table-talk. They are concerned about the rising homicide rate and, with dot- coms in ascendance, the ''Jerrification'' of Oakland at the expense of the poor.
''I'm sure it's fun,'' Ms. White said of the Table, with subjects like ''Historical Conceptions of Place'' and ''Proportionality in Architecture.'' ''But with the lack of affordable housing, the high murder rate and schools in disarray, it's a luxury.''
Mr. Brown said he was seeking ways to instill more ''hospitality, friendliness and give and take'' in the city, bringing to Lake Merritt, in Oakland, perhaps, the spirit of Lake Wobegon and making the city more than a blip in the Berkeley-Stanford intellectual firmament.
''Instead of cost-benefit analysis,'' he said, ''let's take a look at the common good, at Oakland from the view of early Christianity and 2,000 years ago.''
Mr. Brown continued: ''Potholes are being filled, drug dealers are being arrested, buildings are going up. But that's not the whole story.''
For the former Governor Moonbeam, who made out-of-the-box thinkers like E. F. Schumacher, Herman Kahn and R. Buckminster Fuller regents of the University of California, the daily grind of governing never has been. [sic?]
So far in his mayoralty, ''pragmatic agendas have crowded out Jerry's New Age style, at least publicly,'' observes Bruce E. Cain, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California at Berkeley. ''Now it's re-emerging on the radar screen.''
Former Mayor Ed Koch of New York City, who used to bring in scholars for debates at Gracie Mansion, says of the revving up of politicians by intellectuals: ''It goes back to Pericles. ''It's a recycled idea. In the golden age of Greece the brightest minds discussed the issues of the day, like chariot traffic and its adverse effect on the Parthenon.''
Democracy may be a big topic at the Table but that's not the whole story. ''Why am I doing this?'' said Mr. Brown, before heading off to a group dinner of anadama bread and Moroccan sausage. ''The primary reason I'm doing this is because I find it interesting.''