by Tom Manley, President
Over the past year, since achieving full, fast track accreditation last July, our full attention has been devoted to developing a framework—which we call FACT (Framework for Antioch College’s Transition)— for designing and building Antioch as that college
Now entering its second year, FACT has utilized a process of participatory envisioning, creating, experimenting and developing to produce the holistic parameters and value proposition for a college that does not currently exist but is very badly needed in the world. As I see it, our most important task together is to build that college.
It may seem a presumption at this point in Antioch’s existence for us to take on such a task. But isn’t meeting needs that aren’t being met precisely what “start ups”, even vintage ones, are designed to do? It’s good to remember as well that as part of the larger development of the American liberal arts in the 1800s, Antioch College began as an innovation. Because of the vision of its first president, Horace Mann, it sought to traverse the norms and boundaries then current in higher education to create something new. It was “a chance,” Mann wrote to a friend, “for a college never seen before.”
The liberal arts reflected a belief, profoundly influenced by the paradigm changes of the Enlightenment, that education ought to be both rigorous and broad in addressing the whole person rather than preparing them more narrowly for a single profession. Mann believed this, but he also deeply opposed the obscurantism and other prejudices he thought sectarian, religious-based education fostered and, as we know, insisted on developing Antioch along more progressive egalitarian values in service to humanity.
His curriculum for Antioch was rooted in knowledge, understanding and ethical action rigorously and independently verified through science, philosophy, and other subjects, all presented by qualified teachers.
Today, we also have a chance, and no a less need, for a college never seen before; a college that goes beyond the borderlines of what higher education has been, in order to create more accessible, flexible structures and programs responsive to the daunting 21st century realities we face and in complete support of those who will inherit the many problems and possibilities entangled in those realities.
It is my conviction that Antioch College is positioned uniquely to lean into the challenge of transforming the small liberal arts college model and by doing so, leading a movement for a new kind of American College.
What might constitute a new kind of American college at Antioch and elsewhere?
To begin with, I do not see this new kind of college as American in any jingoistic sense; quite to the contrary, its commitment is to a spirit of experimentation, discovery, and innovation and a set of corresponding principles, which seek to make inclusive, participatory education universally respected and available.
In going beyond to something new, we need not go empty handed. Rather we are free and obligated to carry forward what is most useful in building something unprecedented. Thus, a new kind of American college will, after careful deliberation, incorporate aspects of the current small liberal arts college, and the concern for the broad education of the whole person will remain at its center as it addresses the core questions of learning how to know, to make and do, to live together, and to balance the development of meaningful inner and outer lives.
Overall, however, to truly fulfill the promise of offering new directions and new opportunities in education, what must animate us in this different kind of college is a mind (and heart) reset of expert-driven, hierarchical models of knowledge creation and educational administration to inside-out approaches that value the practice of learning, doing, living and being in the real world. This is what we mean by a laboratory college where students claim, develop and test their education experientially by engaging in the world.
In such approaches both teachers and students must have a high degree of agency and, therefore, shared responsibility in the creation and development of knowledge and understanding in partnership with one another and others. This is what we mean by a collaborative college.
In going beyond the status quo, we orient this new kind of college to a trans-disciplinary vision, informed and aligned with the most current, science-based understandings about the multi-level, quantum nature of reality and what this might tell us about the universe and how we might best inhabit together our one and only Island Earth. This is what we mean by discovering new and better ways of living and learning.
A trans-disciplinary vision is meant to complement and expand upon, rather than to supplant the vital disciplinary, interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary approaches we are cultivating in the academy. By exploring the interstices of the disciplines and what may lie outside of them altogether, we make possible new combinations and forms of knowledge and understanding through the humanities, social sciences, sciences and arts, and we inspire active dialog among them.
A new kind of college does not lead to a weaker commitment to what we sometimes refer to as academic rigor. Care and accuracy in argument are not to be sacrificed nor are the production and use of verifiable data nor clarity of expression and communication. On the other hand, taking an open, respectful, and humble posture towards the unknown, the unexpected, and the unpredictable are equally essential as is broad-mindedness in acknowledging the right to ideas and truths opposed to our own.
At this new kind of college multiple ways of knowing, doing, and being are welcome and experienced. The use of intellect and abstraction are key educational strategies to strengthen and refine, but these are not to be favored exclusively over intuition, sensation, imagination, body movement or other modes of knowing. To accommodate and encourage the fullest complement of these forms and methods, we will develop and model paradigms of thought, organization and action, which are hospitable to critique, dialog, and change.
In order to become the authors of the change we desire in ourselves, in our colleges, and in our world, we must embrace complexity and employ the other principles of resilience in its planning and operational life. In the new American college, therefore, we accept, and agree to work openly with, conflict, adversity, mistakes, contradictions, perspectives, values, and beliefs as part of what it means to be human.
Consequently, in our learning, working and living together we will pursue and be mutually supported in the discovery of unities among opposites and bridges to fresh perspectives.
In this manner, by expanding our shared possibilities and opening collective vistas, shared knowledge and understanding is elevated to shared purpose. This is why we seek to practice deliberative democracy and social justice.
Because we recognize there is no challenge more widespread or more profound than the threats to our physical environment and the accelerating crisis of climate change, at a new kind of American college we must demonstrate through all programs, structures and communications actionable respect, advocacy and stewardship for the integrity of the natural world, its eco-systems and their participants.
Human dignity is fundamental to our College’s vision because it is indispensable to the expression and development of individually and commonly held freedoms. What René Daumal has called “the open totality of the human being” is violated by attempts to reduce or limit human experience to a single identity, component, or set of characteristics, whether they are cultural, religious, racial, gendered, or ideological.
While the new kind of college is open to dialog and discussion, it will resist all efforts to impose definitions and structures that undermine human dignity and foreclose on the development of an individual’s identity. This must be an enduring commitment if our intent is to become a place where victories are won for humanity and the world.
We will strive to make a new kind of college that is authentic, discernable, trustworthy and broadly accountable. The aim is an educational institution that serves students and the world rather than privileging other segments of the college or society over them.
At the new American college students own their educations, co-constructing courses and programs of study with their teachers, designing experiences and practicums with mentors, deliberating on matters of governance, economic and community life, and sharing responsibility for the broad range of the work necessary to sustain themselves and their college.
In pieces and processes, this new kind of American college may be found already in present and past Antiochs, in institutions across our country and other places in the world. I have no doubt that its spirit animates many of the reforms underway currently in higher education. However, what I have not seen and what Antioch College has the chance to inhabit now, is an institutional/educational space dedicated entirely and explicitly to the practice of these ideas and principles.
The practice of sustainability, the practice of deliberative democracy and justice, the practice of creativity and story, the practice of wellbeing, and the practice of work and resilient community. Realizing and growing such a college will be as messy, disjointed, and frustrating, as it will be beautiful, joyous, and rewarding. It will be these things and more because it will be fundamentally human. That is where the collective victories we aim to win will be found.
Notes and References:
The idea of A New Kind of American College takes shape around the reality and promise of Antioch College today. However, there are many influences reflected in the thinking presented here not least Basarab Nicolescu (Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity), Karen Barad (Meeting the Universe Halfway), works by poet Alice Fulton, Jal Mehta (The Alure of Order), John Dewey, Arthur Morgan, Ivan Illich, Horace Mann and many others.