Farewell, Antioch

George Will

7/15/2007 12:01:00 AM - George Will

WASHINGTON -- During the campus convulsions of the late 1960s, when rebellion against any authority was considered obedience to every virtue, the film "To Die in Madrid," a documentary about the Spanish Civil War, was shown at a small liberal arts college famous for, and vain about, its dedication to all things progressive. When the film's narrator intoned, "The rebels advanced on Madrid," the students, who adored rebels and were innocent of information, cheered. Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, had been so busy turning undergraduates into vessels of liberalism and apostles of social improvement that it had not found time for the tiresome task of teaching them tedious facts, such as that the rebels in Spain were Franco's fascists.

That illustrates why it is heartening that Antioch will close after the 2007-08 academic year. Its board of trustees says the decision is to "suspend operations" and it talks dottily about reviving the institution in 2012. There is, however, a minuscule market for what Antioch sells for a tuition, room and board of $35,221 -- repressive liberalism unleavened by learning.

Founded in 1852 -- its first president was Horace Mann -- Antioch was, for a while, admirable. One of the first colleges to enroll women and blacks, it was a destination for escaped slaves. Its alumni include Stephen Jay Gould, Coretta Scott King and Rod Serling, whose "Twilight Zone" never imagined anything weirder than what Antioch became when its liberalism curdled.

In 1972-73, Antioch had 2,470 students. In 1973, a protracted and embittering student and employee strike left the campus physically decrepit and intellectually toxic. By 1985, enrollment was down 80 percent. This fall there may be 300 students served by a faculty of 40.

In 1993, Antioch became an international punch line when it wrote rules to insure that all sexual conduct would be consensual, step by minute step: "If the level of sexual intimacy increases during an interaction ... the people involved need to express their clear verbal consent before moving to that new level." Does consent to a touch cover a caress? Is there consent regarding all the buttons?

Although laughable, Antioch was not funny. Former public radio correspondent Michael Goldfarb matriculated at what he calls the "sociological petri dish" in 1968. In his first week, he twice had guns drawn on him, once "in fun" and once by a couple of drunken ex-cons "whom one of my classmates, in the interest of breaking down class barriers, had invited to live with her." A true Antiochian still, Goldfarb says: "I do think I was made stronger for having to deal with these experiences."

Steven Lawry -- Antioch's fifth president in 13 years -- came to the college 18 months ago. He told Scott Carlson of The Chronicle of Higher Education about a student who left after being assaulted because he wore Nike shoes, symbols of globalization. Another left because, she told Lawry, the political climate was suffocating: "They all think they are so different, but they are just a bunch of conformists."

Carlson reports that Lawry stopped the student newspaper's practice of printing "announcements containing anonymous, menacing threats against other students for their political views." Antioch likes to dabble in menace: It invited Mumia Abu-Jamal to deliver its 2000 commencement speech, which he recorded on death row in a Pennsylvania prison, where he lives because 26 years ago he shot a Philadelphia police officer first in the back, then three times in the face. Antioch's invitation was its way of saying ... what?

In an essay in the Chronicle, Cary Nelson, Antioch class of 1967 and now a professor of English at the University of Illinois, waxes nostalgic about the fun he had spending, as Antioch students did, much time away from campus, receiving academic credits. What Nelson calls "my employee resistance to injustice" got him "released from almost every job I had until I became a faculty member." But "my little expenditure was never noticed" when "I used some of Lyndon Johnson's anti-poverty money" to bus anti-Vietnam war protesters from Harlem to Washington.

Given that such was Antioch's idea of "work experience" in the "real world," it is unsurprising that the college never produced an alumni cohort capable of enlarging the college's risible $36 million endowment. Besides, the college seems always to have considered raising money beneath its dignity, given its nobility.

"Ben & Jerry could have named a new flavor for us," says John Feinberg, class of 1970 and president of the alumni board, with a melancholy sense of unfulfilled destiny. His lament for a forfeited glory is a suitable epitaph for Antioch.