Thursday, June 14, 2007

Antioch College, RIP

Antioch College in Ohio has announced that it is suspending operations next summer. According to its press release, the college plans to reopen in several years, but people who know about such things say that its chances of reopening are small. There are things to mourn in its demise, and things to learn as well.

Antioch has always been a place for the radical’s radical. It has been known most recently for inviting convicted cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal to speak at its commencement (by telecom linkup from his cell), and for a comical school policy requiring that all sex acts at the college by explicitly negotiated and consent obtained.

As a whole it is a good thing for American society to have this kind of variety in higher education. America needs an Antioch, committed to radical “social change,” just as much as it needs a consummate traditionalist school like Hillsdale College. It is part of the genius of the decentralized nature of American society that anyone can start a college on any principles he likes, and only students and other constituents decide whether it succeeds or not. And Antioch surely had its niche. Its founder, Horace Mann, famously exhorted people to make sure they didn’t die without having some victory for humanity, by which he meant social progress. It admitted blacks and women long before many schools (although not before Hillsdale, which derived from the ideals of the American Revolution, not criticism of the American project, the proposition that discrimination in admission was wrong).

But ultimately Antioch was cannibalized by its own victories and philosophy. Its radical critique of American society has long since entrenched itself in faculties across the land, making it largely unnecessary. Meanwhile, according to some alumni, the new generation of students had an unusually influential subset that was fundamentally different. Whereas progressives of yore believed in social improvement as the highest value, nowadays, influenced by broader cultural trends, self-expression and individual liberation from social constraint of all sorts is. Indeed, the Antioch's hometown paper, The Yellow Springs News, reports that the school's financial decline began when students wnet on strike in the ealry 1970s, as if the college was there to be bent to their demands. The dormitories and dining facilities in the campus were frequently marred with graffiti, all in the name of free student expression of course, and it was until recently common for students to call the local authorities to campus by launching false fire alarms. Anarchy, in other words, rather than progressivism.

Progressivism as an ideology requires a conception and acceptance of the society that is to undergo progress. Society is to be repaired, not torn asunder. Anarchy and radical individualism, however, are different. There are to be no restraints, particuarly informal social ones. Alas, once that happens, once the common core of both generally accepted values and the political institutions built on them are breached, individualism finds there is no structure to support individualism, merely anarchy.

It is said that when French students took over the Sorbonne in 1968 one of the things they immediately did was to destroy and vandalize ancient documents contained in the library. That is an act of mere mindless destruction, not of progress. It is breaking Lenin’s eggs as indiscriminately as possible, with no thought even of the omelet to emerge. In a sense the values of the modern left, taken to their logical conclusion, made Antioch unsustainable. The Antioch values ultimately ate their own.

There is a lesson in that.



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