Monday, July 16, 2007

Present at the Demise: Antioch College, 1852-2008

The Chronicle: By RALPH KEYES

Compared with students David and I had seen on our college tour, Antiochians now struck me as more bizarre than bohemian. Nor did their campus culture seem as understandable as the one I'd been part of from 1962 to 1967. I remembered Antioch as a lively, demanding institution, full of contentious students and professors. Many, including myself, were ardent left-wingers. Others stood elsewhere on the political spectrum. As we understood it, one's political convictions were beside Antioch's point. Its emphasis was on thinking for one's self and keeping an open mind. "Re-evaluate your basic assumptions in the light of new evidence" was a campus cliché. I felt constantly challenged to justify my points of view. But I didn't assume that reassessing those views would move me left. It might move me to the right, or toward the center, or nowhere at all.

The Antioch Muriel and I returned to did not emphasize that kind of open inquiry. The assumed endpoint was always to one's left. As a result, Antioch's emphasis had gone from searching for the truth to propagating the truth, from asking questions to teaching answers. One alum told me of asking a women's-studies professor at Antioch if she ever assigned Camille Paglia. The professor recoiled, saying "I wouldn't!" Why not? "Because she's the enemy." ...

Fitful attempts by myself and others to call attention to problems we considered potentially fatal routinely came up against an attitude familiar to anyone who's raised a teenager: "If you want to help, just send money and butt out." Eventually I came to feel that donating to my alma mater was a form of enabling, like giving spare change to a stumble-down drunk, hoping he'll spend it on a bus ride to AA. (For a long time, we designated our donations for the library, until discovering that even funds so earmarked sometimes got used for general operating expenses.)

I began to have less and less contact with Antioch. Going there was just too demoralizing. On rare visits, I was struck by the sparsity of human bodies. Occasionally a student would amble from one building to another, or a small clump could be spotted outside a doorway surrounded by clouds of smoke. Other than that: nothing. Stillness. Antioch had become a ghost campus. ...

For us, what began as a dream ended as a nightmare. Rather than being able to help our alma mater grow and flourish, Muriel and I witnessed its collapse. This was excruciating, like watching a beloved relative decline, lose memory, and ultimately go mad. Most dismaying was how few of those involved were willing to acknowledge Antioch's dysfunctional condition: not the administrators, the faculty members, the trustees, nor local journalists, who swallowed whole Antioch's repeated assurances that things were in hand and on the uptick. As recently as September 2005, Antioch's interim president told a reporter that the college was "on a straight road toward fiscal vitality." That's why so many were so shocked when its Board of Trustees announced in June that Antioch College would suspend operations in a year's time.

I've been asked often whether the demise of my alma mater surprised me. It did not. I was startled and alarmed years ago, when it became apparent that Antioch was driving off a cliff. I braced myself for its impending disintegration. But Antioch's slow-motion decline felt worse than its sudden collapse. When loved ones age and fail over an extended period, their departure can come as a relief. After years of sadly watching my alma mater self-destruct, that's how its actual demise felt: less a shock, more a relief.

Keyes' piece is a devastating critique of all things Antioch, at least in recent years. We await the letters.

1 comment:

James said...

Huh. Well, I attended Antioch from 1999-2003, and there was still a lot of good in it during most of that period, although the decline was evident in the number of faculty positions, and the departure of some excellent professors.

I did, of course, notice a certain amount of left wing dogma at Antioch. I wonder how it got to be that way. My impression at the time was that it wasn't coming from the professors. Most of the professors I had were quite non-dogmatic, and encouraged free thought. (I'm not quite sure what was going on in the women's studies department; certainly some people had some pretty toxic ideas about gender , but I don't know if the professor there was a particular instigator of these.)

When I was there, it seemed as though there were certain knots of people who embraced fairly extreme and divisive views, but there were always also people who were more open-minded and intellectually curious. Personally, I think it was okay to give a disproportionately large share of time to leftist thought at Antioch, because in most other contexts it is given a disproportionately small share. I think that most students--if not all--were aware of the alternatives. Or... not. I'll admit that this was kind of a tricky issue. Still, I do believe that many students from my era came out of the experience with appropriately balanced and sophisticated political views.

And one thing I did notice for sure, during my time, was that at least many of the students did seem to genuinely care about social issues. I've been teaching discussion sections at UC Santa Barbara for the last few years, and it's very rare to come across students with the same level of intellectual curiosity.

So, I don't know. It's pretty complicated, maybe. Definitely there was a sense of menace and decay in Antioch's last decade, but there was still also a sense of intellectual passion, at least among some students.

Why exactly did the college fail? An enormous collection of essays could be written on this topic; most likely it was a death of a thousand cuts. I think that everyone has a different theory. I personally feel that the alternating trimester system that formed the basis for the academic and co-op schedules during my era had some major, unappreciated negative consequences. Students had difficulty forming lasting social relationships, academic departments had difficulty creating curricula that built on itself in a logical sequence, and community government had weak institutional memory, all due to the irregular coming and going of all the students.

As fatal as that seemed to me, it was clearly just one of the many problems that contributed to the college's decline.

James Green-Armytage