The Future of Progressive Higher Ed

Antioch board delays decision; leaders from other colleges consider how nontraditional programs can thrive.
October 29, 2007

On a weekend that was supposed to be crucial for the survival of Antioch College, an anticlimactic announcement from Antioch University's board said only that discussions were continuing and that no decisions had been made. The board had been expected to either approve or reject an alumni plan drafted to prevent the college's operations from being suspended at the end of the current academic year, as the board announced in June it would do.

The statement quoted the chairman of the university's board and the president of the alumni board as expressing optimism about the talks, which could continue this week. Timing is critical, as the college would need to be able to recruit a new freshman class, and faculty members -- who were told in June that their jobs were being eliminated -- would need to be encouraged to stay.

As Antioch alumni were focused on the developments in Yellow Springs, Ohio, about 30 leaders in progressive higher education gathered for a retreat some 700 miles away, in Plainfield, Vt., to consider the future of their philosophy in a political era that may be hostile to it.

They gathered at Goddard College, like Antioch an institution that is proudly nontraditional -- and the group included educators from Antioch (its Los Angeles campus), Bard, Evergreen State College and Union Institute and University, as well as educators at more traditional institutions with divisions or individuals who come out of the progressive higher education tradition. (While there is no agreed upon philosophy for progressive colleges, they are generally institutions with close student interaction, student responsibility in determining the course of education, non-traditional majors, and left-leaning politics.) The meeting at Goddard was being planned well before the June announcement that Antioch College's operations would be suspended, but news from Antioch added impetus for the event, organizers said.

Among the ideas discussed, participants said in phone interviews: creating an accrediting institution to focus on progressive institutions, identifying opportunities for programs outside the United States, and more outreach by progressive educators to various social movements with the idea that the work of progressive professors or colleges should not be confined to higher education.

"Progressive education rose out of particular historic moments," said Suzanne Richman, director of health arts and sciences programs at Goddard. "The question now is: What is the next wave?"

No firm plan emerged, except for the idea of continuing the discussions and setting up another meeting, perhaps involving more people. Participants acknowledged that many of the ideas that have momentum in higher education run counter to their views.

"How do we address the strategic planning movement?" asked Stephen Rowe, a professor of philosophy at Grand Valley State University, in Michigan. Progressive educators, he said, need to define that "education is a great transformative practice in the Western tradition -- and is very different from mere training." He said that he fears the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education -- commonly referred to as the Spellings Commission -- is pushing the education as training idea "as opposed to education of the whole person."

The Education Department has been prodding accreditors to focus more on measurable outcomes of student learning, and several of those at the meeting -- people who pride themselves on highly individualized instruction and a deep skepticism of standardized tests -- said this led them to think about the need for new accreditors.

"If accrediting agencies no longer want to be responsive to the values and traditions that progressive education holds," progressive colleges need new review bodies, said Kenneth L. Bergstrom, a professor of education at Union Institute and University. "They often don't understand what we try to do in education settings and push us in directions that need to be resisted."

Others said that they had had positive experiences with accreditors, and all stressed that they weren't trying to avoid accountability, but some sort of uniformity of expectations.

"I don't want to vilify the accrediting bodies. I'm not opposed to strategic plans and accountability. The question is, what are the right goals to have?" said Emily Lardner, co-director of the Washington Center for Improving the Quality of Undergraduate Education, at Evergreen State.

Mark Schulman, president of Goddard, said one issue discussed was how progressive educators can talk about ideas that they and their institutions pushed and that are now common -- ideas like interdisciplinary education, service learning and so forth. "We have to cherish and celebrate our victories," he said, and not be afraid to do so when colleges embracing these ideas aren't necessarily progressive.

But at the same time, he said it was important to speak out when others "appropriate" these concepts "without the values commitments" that are part of these ideas.

Another challenge facing the movement, Schulman said, is that of those who gathered at Goddard, "the age was not young." He said that while the wealth of experience was valuable, he was concerned about the lack of younger participation. He speculated that there may be fields such as environmental studies -- important at places like Goddard and other progressive colleges before the field was hot elsewhere -- that could build bridges between progressive educators and younger faculty members and students.

Schulman also said it was important for progressive colleges to point out that despite the problems at Antioch and New College of California, other progressive institutions are thriving. Those conservatives who seem to be enjoying Antioch's difficulties should ask themselves whether all religious or conservative colleges should be judged by the scandal at Oral Roberts University, Schulman said.

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