There has been a lot of eulogizing over the recent announcement that Antioch College will be closing its doors next year. A full background can be found here and a thoughtful New York Times editorial is here. And it seems like every other article at InsideHigherEd.com for the last few days has been about Antioch, running the gamut from sensible analysis from higher ed professionals on the one hand, to shocked hand-wringing about how Antioch “matters” and grim generalizations to all of higher ed on the other.
However, I confess that I had never heard of Antioch College until the story of its closure was reported. Apparently, it is was a famous and influential college in the sphere of “progressive” higher ed. This last refers to colleges and universities that have a distinctively liberal outlook and mission. In particular, Antioch had in recent decades embraced a culture of liberal political activism on its campus and in its student body. That orientation has earned it no special sympathy from conservative edubloggers (all seven of them).
After reading so many of these Antioch stories, I decided to visit its web site just to have a look. I ended up looking at the structure of its core curriculum. And I have to say, I found it quite intriguing. Students complete not only core classes but also 3-4 semesters of co-op work off campus. The curriculum is interdisciplinary and resists compartmentalization. The majors are all individualized. There are capstone projects. There’s lots of study abroad. Lots of colleges, including my own, are still trying to implement successfully even just one or two of these curricular elements today. If I had gotten a look at Antioch back when I was a high school junior and contemplating my post-high school future, I would have gotten pretty excited.
But here’s the thing: I wouldn’t have been welcome in that community that I found so exciting. You see, I am not “proudly progressive” as Antioch prides itself to be. I’m a conservative, not by default but by conviction and through a long and ongoing intellectual journey. I do not believe what Antioch college believes. And despite what the web site says:
…I know that, as a non-progressive, from the moment I set foot on the campus to the moment they flunked me out or cast me out, there would be no participation in the “robust debate” and there would be no “respectful understanding” of my views so long as those views include, for instance, a negative stance on Affirmative Action or a pro-life stance on abortion. The debate would be robust and the understanding respectful, provided that there was only one side to the debate and no misunderstandings to clear up in the first place. I might be excited about the college, but the college would not be excited about me, and I should expect nothing but intellectual ostracism for all my troubles.
I have no idea why exactly Antioch College closed — it looks like colossally bad management had a lot to do with it, and the all-too-common practice by liberal arts colleges of dissipating themselves into far-flung branch campuses. But there must be something more than just bad administration that caused the enrollment at the main campus to dwindle all the way to a pathetic 300 students. Something was keeping new students away in droves.
I think a possible answer is related to my hypothetical look at Antioch College as a conservative high school student. When you have a campus whose culture is predicated on exclusivity based on political and social beliefs, you are instituting a risk that you will ostracize some very good students, possibly very many good students, who might have come and flourished at your college had your campus culture been truly robust and thoughtful and inclusive of all areas of thought and belief. And people just may not be interested in dealing with such an exclusive, illiberal culture any more when there are other colleges out there without that culture.
Antioch’s closure is bad news from the human standpoint — there are faculty and staff without jobs, students without a college — but one also has to keep in mind that Antioch College was part of a larger marketplace. And people just stopped buying.
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