RIP: Antioch College

June 20, 2007, 12:57 pm

There is no rule that a college or a university has to last forever, but I find the closing of Antioch College a little sad. Signs indicate that the expansion to a university with satellite campuses that will survive the closing of the original residential college may have been overambitious, which only makes the loss of this radical educational vision even worse, in my view. A liberal arts college will disappear leaving a cash-driven degree mill in its wake. Antioch alum Cary Nelson (the other Tenured Radical) has this post at Inside Higher Ed, and there are a variety of comments attached to it, many of which seem to be saying “good riddance to bad rubbish.”

The view that Antioch’s time had passed seems to follow two strains of thought. One is that Antioch’s radicalism and out-of-the-box educational philosophy was so retro, noxious and impractical that its loss should be celebrated. A commenter cites as proof of this a diversity mural at the college that (shockingly!) had no white men in it, although some of us might argue that this might have been an ironic point the artist was trying to make — that you notice when the white men have been removed from a visual representation, and your outrage tells you something about what you are privileging as an artistic or social vision. And I am curious about whether these angry white men ever get it that the only time they seem to be ripshit about the failure of diversity is when they are left out, and that the loss of Antioch, as Nelson suggests, is probably a larger blow to diversity.

The other premise draws on the marketplace theory of education that has given us vouchers, charter schools, for-profit public schools and No Child Left Behind, ideas that have failed to transform secondary education a jot except by turning it over to the testing industry. In other words, if students or their parents don’t want to buy it in sufficient quantities to ensure a healthy profit, it’s no good. If Antioch failed, it failed for a good reason related to mismanagement or its own lack of vision. The people have chosen.

I have very little to say about Antioch that is knowledgeable about the institution, but I’ve known some amazing people who went there, a number of whom were older women of color who had gotten involved in community organizing and parlayed that into an opportunity to go to college. However, assuming that Antioch’s demise represents some higher education version of Lani Guinere’s “canary in the coal mine,” I would argue that there a few things we need to fear.

The first is that higher education is becoming more homogenous. It is harder and harder to put together a list of colleges or universities and claim that they are really distinct from one another, except in terms of location, size, fees, specialties that they may offer in the arts or sciences, and/or the reputations of particular departments in their fields. Schools that used to be distinct in their outlook and pedagogical philosophy have either gone out of business (Antioch); become a business (Bennington, the Union); or have consciously moved to the middle (Zenith, the New School, Pitzer.)

The second is that we cannot continue supporting private or public education through tuition payments, whether that tuition is paid fully by those who can afford it or by loans, grants and scholarships for those who can’t afford it. Higher education is a necessary resource, not a luxury or a business. Whether it is an Antioch — a school that must have been heavily tuition-driven — or a Zenith, where full payers who are paying close to 45K a year are still not paying what it costs to educate them, education is in a perilous place if we keep expecting it to pay for itself and respond to what the “market” demands. The market usually demands a certain kind of conformity of thought, whether you are talking video games or publishing; and sure, a new idea can shift that paradigm, but the outcome is often a new conformity that is sustained by those who want to profit from it until yet another new idea causes it to be abandoned.

A great society creates an atmosphere where creativity is valued for itself, and where ideas, and the institutions that sustain critical thought, can sustain their traditions whether they are on the margins or on the mainstream. As David Palumbo-Liu once wrote in an article called “Universalisms and Minority Cultures” (differences: a journal of feminist cultural studies 7:1: 188-208), margin and mainstream ought not to be seen as competitive with each other, but rather as in productive tension, in which each is necessary to the other and the circulation of ideas from majority positions, to minority positions, and back again, is a sign of a healthy political culture.

I don’t know whether these issues will be addressed any time soon, but we needed Antioch, and there should have been some way to sustain its vision of multi-generational, pragmatic, radical undergraduate education.

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