Pittsburgh 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.