The Demise Of Antioch College (Continued)

The death of Antioch College is one of those quiet events that may one day be viewed as the marker of a passing of an era. On June 14, 2007 American Thinker published my obituary for Antioch College, the substance of which no one will confuse with "Auld Lang Syne" or "Lycidas." To paraphrase Antioch alumnus, Rod Serling, "Requiem for a Lightweight" may be the more succinct way to describe that substance. My article generated enough of a response from the diaspora of Antioch to merit some elaboration and response.

Some correspondents were critical, citing their own good education at Antioch, essentially saying, "You did not go to Antioch College, so what do you know?"  With this rhetorical question came such charming descriptions of my article as "irresponsible," "worthless," and "stupid simple."

I spent a lot of time in Yellow Springs while growing up nearby.  Over the years I went to plays and lectures, sat in the bars, spoke to students, hung out in Glen Helen, etc.  I have had the pleasure numerous times of watching Antiochians demonstrating in front of our State House for the cause de jour. My piece wasn't a scientific study based on polling, it was based on my observations. I never once heard or read opinions different from those which made up the gist of what I expressed in my article.  I can recall not one statement or argument that had much to say that was good about America, their pronouncements being the usual ones about racist, imperialistic, and genocidal America; in short, the parroting of the likes of Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, ad nauseam.  Nor was there ever, not once, any opinion expressed by any students that I ever heard or read acknowledging any value for the use of military power for American interests, democratic capitalism, traditional religion, limited government, or those who recognize the perverse incentives of a socialized economy, etc.  Even something as mundane as the political graffiti at Antioch was witless sloganeering.

What seemed so "intellectual" and "artsy" at the time to this 18 year old was really quite anti-intellectual.  As time passed it struck me as I spoke with Antioch's students that the College was more of a Potemkin village, which looked like a liberal arts college but was really a place to get political training and to have one's pre-conceived notions about the evils of America reinforced.  This is hardly my idea of a real liberal arts education any more than writing for "Al Jezeera" is journalism.

Now I suppose that it is theoretically possible that the classes and dorms at Antioch were just full of wonderful Socratic discussions where issues were reasonably discussed with all alternatives fairly presented, and I suppose that it is possible that this herd of independent minds at Antioch all just happened to arrive at the very same conclusions on all of these issues.  If this is what happened, then I stand corrected.  However, I seriously doubt that this was the case.  I have never been in a group where issues were presented and discussed objectively and fairly, and where so many people wound up with such uniform and predictable opinions.

Nor is it only non-alumni or those observing from the outside who are capable of being critical of what Antioch has become. Michael Goldfarb published an article in the June 17, 2007 New York Times.  Mr. Goldfarb is an Antioch graduate who entered college the same year that I did.  His views from the inside are much the same as mine, which proves the wisdom of that great philosopher, Yogi Berra, who said, "You can observe a lot by watching."

One parent raved to me about the good things that Antioch College is doing for her daughter.  She told me that "Antioch did not expect students to think out of the box; it expected them to tear down the box and build a new one." 

It seems to me that a big part of the problem with Antioch is precisely its desire "to tear down the box and build a new one."  This desire presupposes that there is nothing in the box worth keeping or cherishing, and it fosters that patronizing impression that students 18-22 years of age have wise ideas of how that box ought to look.  When you have a politicized faculty on a campus where people basically think the same, and where these orthodoxies are not really challenged, then that "new box," to use this parent's metaphor, is likely to turn out dull and not terribly new.

Another theme of my respondents is that what seems to matter most is that Antioch is an institution that teaches "public service," "activity based learning," and "doing good for humanity."  Those phrases, "public service" and "doing good for humanity," are examples of those slippery, self-congratulatory phrases that don't tell me much.  Antioch students whom I met over the years consistently promoted themselves this way, while the policies and regimes for which they advocated were often among the most ineffective and murderous of the twentieth century.  Antioch's honors for Mumia Abu-Jamal, a man who viciously executed a policeman on the streets of Philadelphia, or the students' years-long celebration of a psychopath like Che Guevara, speak volumes about Antioch's post-1960s pretensions. That there are alumni who are dedicated social workers who are doing good things doesn't excuse the apologetics for regimes and individuals of these stripes.

One correspondent, much to my surprise, actually defended the notorious sexual harassment policy of Antioch, noting that it is a reasonable attempt to struggle "with a modern day issue."  Here we have Antioch using its authority to set forth a policy, the breach of which, I presume, has consequences. The problem lies in the fact that Antioch does not hold "authority" in terribly high regard as a matter of principle.  As a consequence the language in the policy sugarcoats or trivializes it with that infantile "YIPPEE YAHOO YES!".  One can almost hear the administrator thinking how hip she really is as this is typed onto the page. Is this a serious policy pretending to be unserious, or is this an unserious policy that is merely pretending to be serious? I suspect that it is the former, and the belief that two ("or more!") 18 year olds would take this policy seriously shows a profound lack of wisdom. (Just a suggestion for the sequel should Antioch revive itself: try teaching the virtues of modesty, self-restraint, and reticence. Now THAT would be countercultural.)

I was also criticized for the sarcastic and negative tone of my piece, and to this charge I plead guilty.  Yes, I believe the politics so emphasized at Antioch are pernicious and wrong-headed.  However, my sarcasm and sense of schadenfreude arise from my indignation, and my indignation arises primarily from Antioch's perversion of what is best in a liberal arts education.

A great liberal arts education explores honestly the most basic human issues and mysteries with the greatest minds who have so eloquently and carefully written about them.  It is "knowing the best that has ever been thought and said in the world" as Matthew Arnold put it.

Unfortunately, the four years that we spend in college are terribly fleeting, and it is a zero sum game.  Each hour that an Antioch student earns credit learning how to organize a demonstration and putting slogans on signs, or being indoctrinated with statist politics, or reading a fraud like Rigoberta Menchu or the doggerel of Maya Angelou is an hour that they do not read and contemplate the likes of Shakespeare, Plato, Goethe, Gibbon, or Yeats under what should be the expert guidance of a professor who is engaged enthusiastically with thinkers and artists of this caliber.  In Antioch's version of this zero-sum game, the curriculum can easily become just another chronicle of wasted time. If a student managed to avoid this waste of time, then I suspect that it was despite the priorities of institution rather than because if it, and good for him or her.

Antioch College is now paying the price for its perverse priorities.  What is sadder than Antioch's demise is the fact that this perversion of the curriculum continues unabated in humanities departments at many colleges and universities (Oberlin, Berkeley, Duke, and Cornell immediately come to mind).  The main difference between these colleges and universities and Antioch College is that these others, like an aging and heavily made-up stripper, are still well-endowed.

Contact Henry P. Wickham, Jr.