A Dream Still Worth
President Mark Roosevelt
Growing up in the era of American ascendancy, all things seemed possible. In the mid-1960s, what has been dubbed “The Liberal Hour,” optimism was at levels seldom seen before or since. The momentum of economic growth appeared unstoppable. JFK said, “Let’s go to the moon,” and we did. More ambitious still, Lyndon Johnson spoke not just of reducing but of ending racism and poverty. And to that end, Washington passed legislation at a pace not seen since the New Deal—two major civil rights acts, Medicare and Medicaid, food stamps and Head Start, and new environmental and consumer protections.
At the high point of “The Liberal Hour,” Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at Antioch’s 1965 commencement. Optimism pervades Dr. King’s speech. He proclaimed that “we now have the resources and the techniques that can get rid of poverty,” not just at home, but across the world. But along with that optimism, you sense something deeper, a realization that poverty and racism may prove more stubborn than some thought. King wanted to make sure that his listeners understood that success depended on literally everyone joining in the war against poverty, which to succeed “must be an all-out war.”
If you read carefully you realize that King understood that victory in this war was far from assured:
“Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God.”
The time of King’s speech was a massively hopeful time, but, sadly, a very short one. It lasted less than half a decade—brought down by the Vietnam War, domestic discord, and in no small part by the assassination of King himself less than three years later.
But that time, its big dreams, and how leaders such as King came to embody all that is best about America, marked many of us deeply.
In many ways the story of Antioch College mirrors this larger national story. On that sunny June 19, 1965, King was introduced by the College’s president, James Dixon, who said that “each age has its institutions and its men who live out their convictions, who are willing to risk the challenge to convention in order that they may have the opportunity to lead in humane causes and in the solution of humane problems. Such an institution is Antioch College.”
In the decades that followed, emboldened by optimism, a strong sense of mission, and a large dose of the hubris that often accompanies it, Antioch spread its influence across the country through its growing reputation as well as an expanding number of campuses and programs. As with many dreams of that time, this vision inspired many and glowed brightly for a time, but it did not last. As with the national “Liberal Hour,” it was brought down by internal discord, financial pressures and, arguably, excessive hubris.
So how do we properly honor Dr. King’s speech, the dreams of a generation and the history of this small, often struggling but always aspirational, College? And what do we learn from the past 50 years when so many of these dreams—including the dream of a robust, expansive Antioch College—came to less than the dreamers envisioned?
My take—we never give up the dream. We embrace the search for better ways of living—and learning—as the center of what we are doing. It has been all along and must be going forward. We rededicate ourselves to a rigorous, demanding educational experience and to exploring more effective ways of delivering that to a much more diverse generation of college-goers. We start with a great advantage—for a century, Antioch has known that the separation of classroom learning from the world of work is artificial. We will build on that advantage and continue to expand what we mean by “the liberal arts,” “applied learning” and what it means to be an institution dedicated to “lead in the solution of humane problems.”
We must undertake this renewed dedication to an old dream not with hubris, but with humility. Knowing as King did how stubborn those problems truly are, and how resistant human beings can be to change, even change that must, in time, come. We must be open-hearted, non-doctrinaire, and receptive to new ideas and new ways of looking at old problems.
Antiochian exceptionalism, as with American exceptionalism, has always been a double-edged sword. It allowed us to dream big, but also to fall hard. But the dream that Antioch is a place where people come together with big hearts, open minds and a commitment to making a difference, is what has kept this college alive when almost everyone had written it off.
It is still a dream worth fighting for. And for those who know both big dreams and hard falls, rebuilding Antioch represents an important opportunity to say yet again: “I am still here. Still trying. Still caring. Still making a difference.”