Why Antioch Matters

The demise of a unique liberal arts college reflects a series of lamentable trends in higher education, writes Cary Nelson.

June 18, 2007

Antioch is not just about Antioch. It is about the future of small liberal arts colleges. It is about the future of higher education. And it is finally about the kind of country we are and what role higher education has in preparing citizens for participation in public life.

As one small university undergoes a severe -- and quite possibly fatal -- crisis of both finances and shared governance, deciding to shut down for now the undergraduate college that defined the institution, it is worth differentiating between its unique and its representative contributions to the nation it has served. Both structurally and culturally, Antioch was and is distinctive. Its multigenerational "experiment," never fully adopted by other colleges, was nonetheless successful for many decades. By keeping its traditions alive, it offered them as imaginative possibilities for others to consider and modify. The loss of its controversial inspiration is fundamentally incalculable.

Taken together, the campus and the village of Yellow Springs, Ohio, share a combined commitment to social justice that achieved a remarkable level of community consensus. Antioch’s history with Yellow Springs is far from conflict free, but it has left an impressive legacy nonetheless. While there are other roughly comparable small college towns, I know none other quite like this one.

Yet in other respects, Antioch is simply a member of its class. The faculty at many small liberal arts colleges regularly gather to debate the mission and the aims of undergraduate education. At our large multi-versity campuses, such conversations among English professors and engineers are not only impossible; they are unthinkable. On many campuses there is no real agreement about the purpose of undergraduate education and thus little possibility that such institutions can have any coherent impact on public life.

In an increasingly corporatized climate, higher education amounts to advanced job training. It does well at producing compliant employees, but it cannot be counted on to produce citizens capable of evaluating public policy or political debates, let alone taking an active role in them. As the multi-versity worldwide moves to defund humanities and interpretive social science education, higher education's role in producing informed citizens fades into the background. Although some academic disciplines in large institutions fulfill this role, the small liberal arts college remains its last comprehensive institutional base. The contribution the liberal arts college can make to the nation's political and cultural health is irreplaceable. Antioch has been a stalwart member of that tradition, producing generation after generation of socially and politically engaged graduates.

In one surprising way, however, Antioch has historically been on the opposite side of the cultural divide between general education and employment preparation. No other college in the country -- or so it seems on the surface -- was so intricately structured to combine a liberal arts education with job training. In its heyday, Antioch maintained an elaborate nationwide employment system for its students. It ran two simultaneous "divisions," each of about 750 students. Half of them were at work at jobs around the country, while the other half studied on campus. Every three or six months, the two divisions switched roles, with one group of 750 students returning to campus, while the other half went out to take up the jobs their counterparts just left. Students chose their jobs from among hundreds of options by reading through files of reports supplied by their predecessors. A group of college faculty members were tasked with visiting employers and seeking new job opportunities. Oddly enough, you could go through your entire undergraduate career without meeting your shadow classmates in the opposite division.

Certainly some students could sample jobs in exactly the careers they hoped to pursue. There were many jobs in science labs, some conventional, others exotic. I would count three months on an ocean going research vessel and six months in an Antarctic research station in the latter category. You could also try a job to see whether it was really for you -- in a factory, on a farm, in an ad agency, with a publisher, with an accounting firm, in a theater, with a radio station, in a department store. But there was in addition a more metaphysical dimension to these job experiments. Many jobs were fundamentally opportunities to enter into and experience a different world without making any sort of long-term, let alone lifelong commitment, to it. You could work on a small town newspaper for six months. You could work in a mental institution for a quarter. You could succeed or fail at any of these jobs without suffering major career consequences. And you didn't have to train for them for years before experiencing what they were like.

The result was thus not job training in the manner of technical schools, but rather a hands-on education in the nature of work. It did not produce compliant employees but rather employees with a distinctive comparative experience of the contemporary workplace. Antioch students came to know employment in depth, and they graduated ready to evaluate and, when appropriate, improve the work places they eventually joined long term.

The whole system was astonishingly efficient -- with one faculty and one physical plant, yet two entire student bodies. Most students took five, rather than four, years to complete an undergraduate degree, but the overall annual production of graduates was still impressive. Oddly enough, the Antioch model seems even more relevant today than it did two generations ago. It answers to the corporate pressure for job training, while adding a powerful and transformative philosophical dimension to what otherwise seems crass and instrumental. For work at Antioch was always "a meaningful learning experience."

Some of the job experiences, to be sure, were absolutely dreadful, for some exploitive employers took advantage of these youngsters to extract very long hours indeed. Yet there was always the escape hatch in sight. The job had a definite end. The Antioch campus could also be maddening. Student government had far more power than on most campuses, and the results were not always either fair or rational. Students were thus empowered not only to succeed but also to fail at running a community. Again, they learned.

In the 1970s a visionary but thoroughly impractical college president opened a great number of satellite campuses across the country. Seriously underfunded, they failed in large numbers and depleted the college's endowment. A few have survived and prospered, but the renamed Antioch University has struggled financially ever since. The economic effects of a long 1973 strike were also substantial. Had the endowment survived intact, its income could have sustained the physical plant and vastly facilitated student recruitment. Perhaps loyal alumni can still save the Yellow Springs campus.

The Antioch experiment aimed to produce informed and critical citizens who were ready to take up the struggle to make a better world, both locally and nationally, in their work places and in their country. Corporations interested in obtaining inventive, thinking employees could do worse than to invest in this model and bring it back to life.


Cary Nelson is the Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences and a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He graduated from Antioch College in 1967.


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