Time to reinvent the college experience

January 4, 2011


— This week, Mark Roosevelt, until recently the superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools, becomes president of Antioch College, the iconoclastic school in Yellow Springs, Ohio, that closed in 2008 because of declining finances and enrollment. This winter, he will begin rebuilding Antioch, with the hope of enrolling 25 pioneering students by autumn.

Roosevelt has undertaken an unusual challenge — resurrecting a college is no small task — but almost no one, except perhaps the most adamantine alumni and faculty, would want simply to reconstruct the old college. With this challenge comes one of the great opportunities in higher education: the chance to reinvent the whole idea of higher education.

Indeed, if the new Antioch offers its students a menu much like that already offered at American colleges, it won’t be true to its innovative character and tradition. Antioch’s first president was, after all, the legendary education reformer Horace Mann.

There’s too much emphasis today on getting into college and too little emphasis on examining the idea of college. One man who has done so is Josiah Bunting III, who has been president of Briarcliff College and Hampden-Sydney College, superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute and headmaster at New Jersey’s Lawrenceville School.

A decade ago, Bunting wrote a provocative book, “An Education for Our Time,” in which he created, from scratch, a new kind of college, designed, as he put it in a conversation the other day, for “the preparation of virtuous and disinterested citizens and leaders for the American Republic.” Ask not what your college can do for you, ask what college can do for America — or the world.

Bunting’s college would require its students to know a Western and non-Western language fluently, spend a year in a non-Western country, perform some type of service and take boxing. It would have no fraternities. Its faculty would be composed of authentic scholars and mature laymen with an avocation for literature, philosophy and economics, and these faculty members would live with and around students as role models and teachers.

“You want people in there,” said Bunting, “whose own lives encapsulate the values the college seeks.”

That’s a start, though I anticipate a lively argument about the boxing.

But most of all, Roosevelt and the students he recruits — people who will retire sometime after the year 2060 — need to ask big questions about the meaning and value of education. Here are some of the questions that I as a parent of a college freshman think about:

l What is the difference between being trained and being educated?

Great colleges do a little of the former and a lot of the latter, and respect both undertakings equally. It’s one thing to be trained to perform a task, and none of us who goes to a pharmacy or drives over a bridge want our pharmacists or engineers to skimp on training. But it is quite another thing to be educated — to be given the intellectual tools to understand a changing world and to function effectively in it.

The educated college graduate knows more than a little about history, philosophy, religion, economics, literature, the arts and the sciences. None of these qualifies him (or, more likely her — for women now outnumber men in college) for any one profession. The lack of any one of them makes him incapable of recognizing and harnessing change or fully understanding the great permanent questions — about truth, beauty, honesty, loyalty, love — with which humankind has wrestled for centuries.

l What is to be read?

The simple answer may be to quote Matthew Arnold and say that college graduates of any time should be exposed, as he put it in 1869, to “the best which has been thought and said.” That is a much revered and much ridiculed formula, but its mere resilience is proof that it is not empty of value. It is impossible to know where we are going, but it is possible to know where we have been. Great literature and history are the buoys for this voyage.

No educated man or woman in the West can be without more than a passing familiarity with the Bible and Shakespeare. For generations my college required all its students to read “Paradise Lost.” We hated it, but never forgot it, and at every reunion we complain that reading it is no longer required. Bring back Milton, along with the great English poets and novelists and, yes, journalists, particularly those of 18th-century England, the American muckrakers of the early 20th century and the World War II and Vietnam correspondents and, lest we forget, landmark works like “J’accuse,” written by Zola in 1898 about the Dreyfus affair.

Then begin a serious examination of the literature of other cultures.

But the new president of Antioch cannot be satisfied with a “Great Books” approach; that already exists — at St. John’s College, for instance, where it was adopted, ironically enough, when the school was in economic distress. Roosevelt must nurture an atmosphere where the old is respected but the new welcomed.

l What should college life be?

College deans like to speak of a place where “the life of the mind is pre-eminent,” but anyone who steps on a college campus today finds both far more and far less than that. Today’s colleges are a riot of outdoor activities, arts organizations, political groups, debate societies, clubs.

These are a large part of college life and good preparation for life beyond campus. But no one who has spent time at a college lately can plausibly argue that campus life is healthy — students belong to groups that exclude others and promote particularistic goals. They are up all night, exhausted during the day, often impaired on weekends.

Adults have always said that, and by and large students have always behaved that way. But while we’re reinventing college, why not take a shot at reinventing college life? A yawning generation, their parents and their country await Roosevelt’s prescription.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


Paul R Getto 5 years, 11 months ago

"Bunting’s college would require its students to know a Western and non-Western language fluently, spend a year in a non-Western country, perform some type of service and take boxing. It would have no fraternities. Its faculty would be composed of authentic scholars and mature laymen with an avocation for literature, philosophy and economics, and these faculty members would live with and around students as role models and teachers. “'You want people in there,” said Bunting, “whose own lives encapsulate the values the college seeks'" ==== Interesting concept, and one worth discussing across the nation. This would return colleges and universities to their ancient roots, as protectors of the liberal arts. 40+ years ago universities became trade schools and havens for those opposed to our earlier illegal and useless war. They are still trying to recover. I hope this concept works and is discussed elsewhere.

cato_the_elder 5 years, 11 months ago

I hate to burst anyone's bubble, but the main purpose of a successful college education is to learn time management and self-discipline, which are essential to success in life. Those who learn those skills will prosper, which is a good thing for them and ultimately a good thing for our country. One cannot become a scholar without being possessed of those skills.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 11 months ago

"I hate to burst anyone's bubble, but the main purpose of a successful college education is to learn time management and self-discipline"

Isn't that necessary for anybody, regardless of whether they are in college or not?

cato_the_elder 5 years, 11 months ago

Yes, Bozo, but in my opinion the college experience, if appropriately realized, is the best way to learn it and thereby maximize one's success in later life.

make_a_difference 5 years, 11 months ago

I would hope that students have learned time management and self-discipline skills well before entering college. I know that as a parent I began teaching these skills when my kids were preschoolers (and before)...and continued throughout their growing up. I think that without these skills it's difficult to be successful moving through elementary, junior high & high school. How can someone possibly be prepared to be successful in college without having these skills?

voevoda 5 years, 11 months ago

I agree, cato_the_elder, that the college experience should inculcate in students time management and self-discipline (if they haven't learned it yet). But it should also do much more than that: teach knowledge of the world; skills to evaluate, interpret, and synthesize information; read critically; write persuasively; understand numeric data and scientific evidence. Most of all, a university education should prepare graduates to learn on their own, so that they can continue to gain the knowledge and skills they need to prosper in their careers, and to be informed citizens and enlightened individuals.

jafs 5 years, 11 months ago

That sounds ideal!

Is it working that well in practice?

On these comments, it seems that many people lack the skills you mention, despite their having gone to college.

Flap Doodle 5 years, 11 months ago

"...take boxing." How totally violent! I throw my hands up in horror.

booyalab 5 years, 11 months ago

A truly reformed college would take advantage of all of the free and low-cost learning materials to be had via technology. Most of the learning would be done online with only a slight physical presence to reduce overhead and administrative costs. The college described in the article sounds a bit different from the norm, without necessarily being better.

voevoda 5 years, 11 months ago

booyalab, It's the interaction that hones minds, not simply reading the classics. Can high-quality interaction occur on-line? Possibly, but rarely. (Look at the quality of interchange on LJW forums, and the point is proven.) And high-quality virtual instruction is almost as costly as on-site instruction. You need the same high-quality instruction (that is, real experts); the same high-quality materials (no, they are not free on-line), and sophisticated high-tech equipment to bring everyone together at the same time, to be seen and heard. The videoconferencing I've seen isn't good enough; it goes down frequently and the thread of discussion is lost while waiting for the connection to be restored. And much of the learning that takes place in the university setting happens outside of class: in the laboratory or the library (both not available in virtual form); or in the dormitory in late-night debates; or over lunch in the cafeteria; or in the professor's office or with him/her walking across campus. Schribman is calling for universities in which student embed themselves in the environment of the mind, not one in which they log in occasionally.

booyalab 5 years, 11 months ago

If it's the interaction that hones minds, then people would be better off going straight to work where they have the same amount of interaction, or more since most of college is spent studying, and they would make money instead of spending what they don't have. Your assumption is self-defeating.

Richard Heckler 5 years, 11 months ago

Forgive Student College Loans approve from 2001 -2009

During this period they went from helping students to making big bucks for certain banks. Then the government killed the economy so how will students pay these back?

Some will say hey the USA cannot afford to forgive these loans. I say BS. This will put money directly into the economy instead of back into the crooked banking system.

Flap Doodle 5 years, 11 months ago

Giving up billions of dollars of loans? Dumb and irresponsible!!!

akhmatova 5 years, 11 months ago

To be sure that there will be some problems with "legitimate" schools, their graduates, and paying back those loans, but the absolutely gigantic, elephant-in-the-room problem are students who have attended/graduated from for-profit "schools" who charge astronomical rates, fund themselves entirely through government student loans. These loans will never see 1/4 of the principles paid back, both because students were overly ambitious with their future "careers" from the for-profit schools and from the predatory practices of these schools. Expect another huge hit to the economy in a few years when this comes to fruition. Legislation needs to be passed yesterday to regulate all these schools, and thankfully stuff is at least going down the pipeline right now.

Haiku 5 years, 11 months ago

What a waste of time. You gave us one thousand words and zero sources.

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