Conference on World Affairs, an Intellectual Free-for-All, Starts Today in Boulder

Dignitaries in the procession for the sixtieth Conference of World Affairs walk through a snowy Norlin Quad at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Dignitaries in the procession for the sixtieth Conference of World Affairs walk through a snowy Norlin Quad at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Photo by Glenn J. Asakawa/University of Colorado

The Digital Age lets us riff through virtually every opinion and perspective in the world. But the Conference on World Affairs was gathering thinkers from around the globe in Boulder more than six decades ago, and today the 67th edition of the CWA will kick off at the University of Colorado, where it will continue through April 10. During these five days a hundred experts from around the world will come to Colorado on their own dime, bunking with families who volunteer their homes, and participating in more than 200 panel discussions on everything from geopolitics to sex, comedy, social media, feminism, race and money, in keeping with this year's theme: “Everything Conceivable.”

New York Post editor Robert George, one of those participants, calls the CWA "an intellectual spring break."

The key to the CWA, according to John Griffin, only its fourth director in almost seven decades, is the creation of a unique, temporary, pop-up “thought community.” Unlike a TED talk, "where you will have a single speaker who is an expert in his or her field,” he points out, the CWA brings in an array of interesting intellects from around the world who are willing to step out of their area of expertise and enter into a dialogue with each other and audience members. 

“Where else can I read poetry in the morning, solve the federal budget crisis in the afternoon, and the next day do it all over again?” asks participant Gordon Adams of the Stimson Center.

“It’s a unique proposition,” Griffin says of the commitment that CWA asks of its participants. But the opportunity to build relationships and trade ideas face-to-face, in real time, is an even more precious commodity than it was in 1948.

The subjects might be serious, but the discussions carry whimsical, provocative titles such as “A Generation Behind Bars,” “The Radical Notion that Women Are People” and “Romancing the Drone.” The three to six panelists slated for each session are given the title and nothing else in advance; with only a local moderator to guide them, they deliver brief opening statements and then push right into quip, query and debate.

The CWA doesn’t try to “land” big names, although luminaries such as Henry Kissinger, Arthur Miller, Huey Newton, Rachel Maddow are on the impressive list of past attendees. This year’s keynote speaker is Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr., who will speak at CU’s Macky Auditorium at 11:30 a.m. today, April 6. His address, titled “In a Single Garment of Destiny,” will treat what Pitts terms “deconstructing the myth of race.”

The late Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert was the most iconic presence at CWA; during his forty years of coming to the conference, he hosted one of its most most distinctive features: Cinema Interruptus, in which a classic film is watched collectively and halted whenever anyone wants to make an observation or ask a question. The results are alternately refreshing, insightful and maddening. This year’s film is Elia Kazan's 1957 A Face in the Crowd, moderated by author, activist and broadcaster David Bender.

A key advance this year is the CWA's live-streaming project: Sessions from two of the larger venues will be broadcast live throughout the week, providing access for those unable to attend in person. (Given the CWA’s weekday schedule, attendees tend to be split primarily between students and seniors; still, last year's audience totaled 77,000.) Audio recordings are posted promptly after each session, and CWA archives have become a valuable resource for researchers over the years.

Griffin credits Boulder for providing an environment that is a perfect blend of informality and intellectual curiosity. “This is not provided by some outside entity for the community’s entertainment,” he says. “Everyone makes a commitment to build a week-long community of learning and engagement with each other. It takes an entire community to put it on — and it builds a community.”

The 67th annual Conference on World Affairs will run from today through April 10 at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Most of the events are free and open to the public; for complete schedule and information, visit www.colorado.edu/cwa.

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