Friday, December 5, 2008

Throwing it all away for the ideal

During my four years at Antioch, I have to admit that I felt quite wary of all the ultra-liberal political ideology that completely dominated the campus. There was something that didn't sit well with me, although I couldn't articulate what it was at the time.

I have since realized that what troubled me about Antioch was that it often put ideology before reason and empirical evidence. If you didn't accept the dogma you were branded as a racist/bigot/sexist. This fear of being rejected was sufficient to keep everyone in our smug little community in line. It also meant that we didn't have to provide real arguments in response to real criticisms. We could just lump our critics in with the evil "conspirators." Sounds cultish, eh?

Don't get me wrong--I am certainly not opposed to liberal ideas or movements such as feminism or gay rights. It's just that so much of the ultraliberal ideology is based on irrational arguments.

Gender differences is a good example. At Antioch we were led to believe that gender differences were largely the result of cultural conditioning. Some teachers and students even went so far as to say that gender differences were entirely socially constructed. While this may have some truth to it, we get nowhere when we try to ignore our obvious biological differences, our human nature.

Michael Goldfarb, an alumnus of Antioch, summed up these problems well in his June 17, 2007 opinion piece in the New York Times:

Antioch College became a rump where the most illiberal trends in education became entrenched. Since it is always easier to impose a conformist ethos on a small group than a large one, as the student body dwindled, free expression and freedom of thought were crushed under the weight of ultraliberal orthodoxy. By the 1990s the breadth of challenging ideas a student might encounter at Antioch had narrowed, and the college became a place not for education, but for indoctrination. Everyone was on the same page, a little to the left of The Nation in worldview.

Much of this conformist thinking focused on gender politics, and it culminated in the notorious sexual offense prevention policy. Enacted in 1993, the policy dictated that a person needed express permission for each stage in seduction. (“May I touch your breast?” “May I remove your bra?” And so on.) In two decades students went from being practitioners of free love to prisoners of gender. Antioch became like one of those Essene communities in the Judean desert in the first century after Christ that, convinced of their own purity, died out while waiting for a golden age that never came.
I was reminded of Antioch's lack of perspective once again this evening when I watched a video on Youtube about the Nonstop Institute, a movement by former Antioch professors and students to continue giving classes despite the loss of the campus.

The video (there are only four so far) I watched was on permaculture/organic gardening. Gardening's great, and be organic if that floats your boat! But what kind of audience is this going to appeal to? In your gardening workshop do you discuss the demerits of organic farming, the reasons why it is not feasible or even desirable for most of the world? Are the pseudoscientific arguments for organic foods debunked or blindly supported?

Most alumni and residents of Yellow Springs seem to support Nonstop's efforts. I'm not sure I'm convinced. At this point they are unaccredited, yet they are asking students to enroll, all the while falsely promising the students that their efforts may be credited sometime in the future. Is this an honest way to run an educational institution?

I understand that the courses may be of the same quality as Antioch college, and I feel bad about the despair the professors and students have had to go through.

The ship has sunk and it is time to let go and move on. It isn't ethical to draw young people, people who need an education to get ahead, under the waters with you as you go down. Responsible educators shouldn't be creating any more damage by madly clinging to something that is no longer. If the college is revived someday, then invite students to attend.

And if you do reopen your doors, Antioch, may you have learned your lesson that your ultraliberal conformist academic environment is only going to keep away students.

1 comment:

JafaBrit's Art said...

"falsely promising the students that their efforts may be credited sometime in the future. Is this an honest way to run an educational institution?"

It isn't a false promise or an empty one from what I understand, "may" being the key word here. Still I agree it is a lot to ask students to sign up on the promise of a maybe.