Antioch Self-Destructs

Howard S. Schwartz

The announcement in June 2007 by Antioch University that it would be closing my alma mater, Antioch College, produced a great deal of commentary.1 One of the better offerings was a 2007 piece in the Weekly Standard by Charlotte Allen, which ran under the title “Death by Political Correctness.”2 Her analysis presents a complex picture, but Allen leaves no doubt that political correctness had a powerful hand in Antioch’s destruction.

Yet, political correctness is all around us. If Antioch died from it, how far behind can others be? What lessons does it have to teach to the rest of us in academe about our own fate? That was the question that drew my attention back to Antioch, from which it had been withdrawn—along with my identification with the Left. My research these days focuses on the dynamics underlying political correctness and the threats they pose to organization, and I have developed a good sense for organizational situations in which these dynamics are taking place.3

The accounts by Allen and others suggested that Antioch had the familiar signs, so I tuned into Internet discussions among Antioch alums, and from there turned to materials located in the Antiochiana collection in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Particularly important was “Crisis and Change in an Organization,” an unpublished case study coauthored in 1985 by Joan O. Yalman and the distinguished sociologist Everett K. Wilson, a member of the Antioch faculty until 1967.4 Back issues of the Antioch student newspaper, The Record, also proved significant.

I hoped to gain a deeper understanding of the dynamics in this case, and in my research looked for features that represent dangers we all face. In brief, I found that political correctness was the instrument, but that Antioch was the agent of its own demise.

Nearly all observers note that the declension point in Antioch’s trajectory was a violent six-week strike in the spring quarter of 1973, during which every functioning area of the college except the dormitories was shut down and parts of the campus were destroyed by arson. The proximate cause of the strike was a demand made by a cohort of poor black students that their full scholarships and loans be guaranteed despite government cutbacks in aid—a financial commitment that Antioch was in no position to make. The strike was widely supported by white students and some faculty members.

The strike gained national attention and did terrible damage to Antioch’s efforts at recruitment in addition to causing many students to transfer out. Given Antioch’s tiny endowment, and therefore its heavy dependence on tuition income, this created a financial crisis and launched a downward spiral from which the college never recovered.

Subsequent to the strike, Antioch came to be dominated by and redefined in the image of the political forces that brought it about. The curriculum shifted toward “victim studies,” while the science programs that had produced Steven Jay Gould and Nobel Prize winner Mario Cappechi went by the wayside. Increasingly Antioch resembled what Steve Lawry, Antioch’s last president, called a “boot camp for the revolution” marked by a “toxic campus culture.”5

There was a market for this sort of thing, but it was small. Inexorably, the college became dependent on subventions from Antioch University (AU). AU had come into existence during the sixties as a way of bringing the Antioch education “to the masses,” but developed into a framework of adult education centers increasingly alienated from its origin. In 2007, AU decided it could no longer afford this life support—but the spring 1973 strike was the point at which Antioch, as I had known it, lost its viability; it had become a dead school walking.

What I soon discovered was that strikes, even bitter strikes, had become an Antioch tradition. In fact, in the preceding winter quarter dining hall employees had held a rancorous strike. This strike was also widely supported by students, but the college administration had actively maintained the school’s functions and stood its ground against the demands of the strikers. Yet just a few months later, during the spring strike, the administration adopted a largely submissive role and did not defend the school’s functioning. It was Antioch’s incapacity to stand its ground that needs to be explained; certainly, that caught the attention of observers, at the time and retrospectively.

For example, Bard College president Leon Botstein, who was not present during these events but was familiar with the dynamics of the issue, recently said:

Well, I think one of the things that Antioch failed in the late sixties was to be able to engage in a critical dialogue with its own students….[T]he issue was that somehow the faculty and the administration of Antioch was [sic] not able to mount a discussion or defense.6

Local observers had noted that even the students and faculty who wanted to end the strike could not stand against the strikers and in favor of the administration, such as it was. Consider this statement from a 2003 retrospective in the weekly independent Yellow Springs News:

At one point a group of 100 faculty and students reopened McGregor Hall, the gym, the library and the science building. Members of the group issued an undated memo saying that they were “concerned with the educational and financial survival of the institution” and that they were acting neither in favor of the administration nor against the strikers.7

Similarly, on May 20, 1973, a large and representative meeting of all elements of the community formed an Emergency Committee on the Future of Antioch College in order to prepare information for an upcoming meeting of the board of trustees. They took the step of declaring neutrality on the strike.8

New York Times reporter Douglas Kneeland assimilated this incapacity to the standard rap on the liberal as “a person who cannot take his own side in an argument.”9 But the contrast with the winter strike points toward something more specific. Antioch’s problem was not so much the inability to take its own side, but also its identification with the side that was attacking it. Antioch invested itself psychologically with the strikers and in the strike itself as a badge of its radical authenticity. Antioch suffered, that is to say, from a deep and ultimately lethal ambivalence.

That ambivalence was revealed in Kneeland’s interview with Antioch president James P. Dixon:

“Lurking in the background is the question of survival,” he said, sprawling comfortably in a chair in a short-sleeved knit shirt, “but in the foreground is what kind of survival, since Antioch really doesn’t make a fetish of survival or it would never have been behaving the way it’s been behaving for the last decade. I don’t think the campus would want to survive at any cost.10

But this was more than a matter of personal views; it had reached the level of administrative policy. According to an unsigned article in the May 4, 1973, Record, Interim Dean Ewell Reagin said at a May 1 faculty meeting that

the two main guidelines he had to follow in bringing the strike to resolution were the balancing of the Yellow Springs campus budget and a continuing commitment to cultural pluralism….When asked which of these principles would take precedent if they came into conflict during the resolution, Reagin declined comment.11

The phrase “cultural pluralism” was heavily freighted. It was defined by the Steering Committee to Increase Antioch Pluralism (SCIAP) in 1970, and then redefined in action. Within the context of that meaning, Yalman and Wilson observed:

[T]he pluralism advocated by SCIAP turned out, in its political manifestations, to be the injured vs. the privileged, blacks vs. whites, new program (NDP) vs. old. It became, that is to say, a simple opposition of good against evil.12

The problem, of course, was that during the strike it was the college itself that represented evil.

To understand this ambivalence, we need to turn to the meaning of cultural pluralism and the various programs and forces that represented it. Chief among these was the program that brought in the poor black students whose demands set off the strike. Why were they recruited?

Charlotte Allen explained the presence of these students as the result of

Antioch’s disastrous experiment with affirmative action. Armed with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, Antioch began in 1965 to recruit impoverished “high-risk students” from “high-risk schools”—which usually translated into black graduates of inner-city high schools who, unlike the middle-class, high-achieving blacks who had sat side by side with whites (albeit in very small numbers) in Antioch classrooms for nearly a century, were not prepared for college work.13

She had that right, except for one thing: this was not an experiment with affirmative action.

Affirmative action, either in the unobjectionable form of increased outreach, or in the form of lower admission standards for members of preferred groups, is intended to increase their representation in an organization whose characteristics are more or less fixed. It is a program of integration into a system that already exists, and is expected to remain as it is. By contrast, the inner-city black students were not brought to campus to integrate Antioch, but to transform it. Moreover, it was clear to everyone that the transformation they were recruited to accomplish would destroy Antioch as it had been. In that sense, Antioch’s death was suicide.

In the history leading up to the strike, as recounted by Yalman and Wilson, one phase stands out: the period from 1969 and 1970 during which the black students, who had by this time gained Antioch’s acquiescence in the establishment of separate living facilities, agreed to give that up in exchange for a shift of resources. The shift, called the New Directions program—included greatly accelerated minority recruitment. They first attained the agreement of the students, faculty, and administration, and then took the matter to the board of trustees.

The board was divided. Interestingly, a number of minority trustees took a more conservative view:

On the whole there was greater uncertainty about opening admissions to minority students on the Yellow Springs campus than there was about programs in the system. Some minority board members seemed to favor a less radical approach than the one on which the institution was embarked. They were more inclined to press on the importance of scholarship as opposed to the importance of becoming a person in a social and political sense; less tolerant of confusion and violence; more caring about the reputation of the institution; more sensitive to the issues of first and second class education; more sensitive to the possibility that minority students were being exploited.14

But, in the end, the board agreed with the new policy:

A particularly important element of this was the advent of the New Directions program itself. Students would be high risk, and “agents of fundamental social change.” After a three day strike the “Trustees, Adcil, the faculty, and students all agreed that pluralism combined with a fundamentally new direction for the college (not just the New Directions program itself) was to receive priority in planning, and therefore in funding.”15

And this is from the minutes of the board meeting:

[T]he Board of Trustees heard from AASI [Afro-American Studies Institute] and APIE [Rockefeller-funded Antioch Program for Interracial Education] leaders and endorsed the overall direction of a series of proposals that would lead to bringing in more high risk students, both black and white. What was being sought was a “critical mass” of differently prepared students so that Antioch would have to move in new educational directions to meet their needs.16

Yalman and Wilson comment:

What is remarkable in this statement is that new departures in education were to be brought about…through a demographic ploy. A change in the size and character of the student body would necessitate a “move in new educational directions to meet their needs.” It is not clear who would define those needs; but the implication is that those doing the defining would not be the existing faculty who had been defining such needs for some time. One must suppose that the definition of need would be offered by students themselves.17

As we have seen, these students were intended to be “agents of fundamental social change,” a term that was concatenated with “high risk.” Ordinarily “high risk” might suggest that such students were chosen despite the fact that they would not likely succeed, while simultaneously it was hoped they would. That does not appear to be what actually happened. On the contrary, whether these students would succeed was not regarded as important. Consider this passage from an interview with President Dixon:

One school of thought…argued for a pretty careful selection of students….I don’t think Dudley [Dawson, Dean of Students] said we should select for success, but I think he thought we should be careful about our social class boundaries. But there were others in the college…who felt that if we were to address the issue and open the institution up to its possibilities, why be so careful as to select merely those who were likely to succeed?18

To be sure, it was not intended to bring in students entirely without selection. These qualities were considered important:

courage, realism, imagination, skill in communication, past success in any area, stubbornness and tenacity, toughness (a sense of self and worth), intellectual and emotional accessibility (openness), freedom of mind, independence of judgment, sense of humor, ability to work hard, a complicated mind.19

But these attributes had nothing specific to do with intellectual activity, and their relationship to academic success was only fanciful. Bringing students into an otherwise highly selective and rigorous institution, and one dramatically different from these students’ experience, was a prescription for alienation and failure.

This failure was built into the heart of the program. “High risk,” as an expression of probability, means high probability of failure. Antioch was deliberately choosing those who could be expected to fail. In a certain sense, their expected failure was the purpose of bringing them to campus. It was a way of forcing Antioch to change by creating a tension to which Antioch would have to respond by orienting itself in the “fundamentally new direction” favored by the advocates of this new admissions policy.

This view conflicts with the idea that these students were selected in a misguided but ameliorative act of nurturance of the oppressed, but is buttressed by the fact that the students recruited were predominately male, and could be expected to respond to their alienation with aggression. That is exactly what happened.

Yalman and Wilson quote from “Separatism at Antioch: A Study of the Antioch Interracial Education Program,” an unpublished 1968 study (available in the Antiochiana collection) by Professor Lois Sparks. Reading APIE student responses to her questionnaire, Sparks remarked that

one gets the feeling that most of them arrive at Antioch with only the dimmest comprehension of what a college is all about. Since they never really expected to go to college, they have not, unlike the regular students, acted out the college experience in their imaginations or informed themselves about alternatives. When they enter, therefore, Antioch is little more than a place (and a fairly exotic one) which may or may not serve their physical and social needs. But at that early stage, they are unequipped even to define the educational program, much less assess their own attitudes toward it.20

At the same time, Yalman and Wilson say:

Although most had both the ability and the desire to learn, they lacked the will, the determination, the self-discipline to do so. They also brought with them, [APIE director Jewell] Graham says, “a kind of wariness of authority and suspiciousness of the white middle class that [precludes] that modicum of trust needed in a learning situation.” And, she adds, they have “a preoccupation with [identity] which saps the energy, takes time, and forecloses concentration on matters that lie outside their concern with being poor and/or black. These factors seem to be more acute for the males than for the females.” And added to all this is the sense that the Antioch program is irrelevant. “Antioch is, after all, an academic community and…academics, narrowly conceived as the transmission of culture…will seem least useful for the needs of these young people whose experiences thus far have prepared them for living a different kind of life.”

And, quoting Graham:

Under these conditions it was easy for initial respect and anxiety to turn into hostility and contempt. The APIE students come with the knowledge that Antioch students are the cream of the crop—smart, wise, and rich. Their first reaction is awe, to which reaction they cling for a while despite the casual dress and because of the verbal virtuosity of the students. After a while this turns to hostility, the hostility the outs have for the ins, and later to contempt as they begin to learn about the usual Antioch student hangups, problems that seem to be unreal artifices, made up for effect.

As a result, APIE “students tend to view other students as phony, the Program staff as bumblers, and the College as impossible.”21

Again, the outcome is unsurprising:

Among black students, dissatisfaction with the academic program grew—its irrelevance, its fix on Angloamerican culture and white, middle class America. It was not expressed in these terms: it was a product of anxiety and frustration coupled with an ignorance of the connection between these means and desired ends.

Faced with all these problems, and in the absence of any effective response from the organization, students took the solution into their own hands. Finding the host College unacceptable, they raided its resources to create their own.22

This took a number of forms, beginning in 1968 with demands for separate living facilities and a separate curriculum, and then proceeding continuously and incrementally to increased funding, control over that increased funding, a larger black cohort, greater control over organizational decision-making, shifts in organizational policy, and so on.23 As this took place, there was little institutional criticism and no questioning of the policies that brought it about. Rather, these were sacrosanct. Thus, when this pressure took the form of the strike, Antioch could not separate itself from its policy and continued to endorse it.

Let us sum things up. Antioch imported a number of inner-city black male students, not only with little expectation that they would succeed, but with high expectation they would fail. There was no demand that they fit in; they were explicitly brought to Antioch not to fit in, but to be themselves. Being themselves, and finding themselves in an alien and impossible situation, they created a tension that pressed the college to restructure itself in accordance with the desires they had brought to campus with them. It is hard to avoid the view that this was what they were supposed to do, which was why their predictable failure did not concern Antioch officials; the program of transformation that they were brought in to accomplish was dependent upon their failure.

That was the meaning of the strike.


The Antioch strike in spring 1973 was the fulfillment of a series of decisions taken by the college. It had gone looking for a certain kind of trouble and had finally found it. The traits and values that the inner-city students brought with them were antagonistic to what Antioch had always stood for, yet they were seen as part of their authenticity and embraced. When this antagonism was amplified by their entirely predictable alienation on campus, and tensions developed that clearly endangered Antioch, these students were further nurtured and empowered. All of these self-destructive actions were undertaken by Antioch’s officials consciously and deliberately. In that sense, we can say that they were a program of suicide.

These officials cherished the antagonism and enabled it through their official action, but they also identified with the college. Their ambivalence must have been exquisite. But what suicide proceeds without ambivalence?

Yet how far did this suicidal inclination go? Did they mean to push the college into academic collapse and insolvency? At some level, I think not. They could not imagine themselves doing that. I think they needed Antioch to survive, even while they were destroying it.

To understand this we need to consider motive, and this is the point at which lessons can be learned. By all accounts, Antioch College was loved, in one way or another, by the vast majority of those connected with it. What motive, could it have had to kill itself, and what connection does this have to political correctness—which is where we began and to where I would like to return?

Here we can only speculate, but for that purpose I think it is useful again to contrast the spring 1973 strike, which involved race, to the winter 1972 dining hall strike, a classic labor-management strike. As established, Antioch stood its ground in winter, but was passive in the spring.

Antioch had always been a college of the Left, as was illustrated by its romantic attachment to strikes. In recent decades, however, the outlook and practices of the Left have changed from socialist politics to identity politics. Antioch’s incapacity to defend itself was an artifact of identity politics.

How could it have defended itself? Socialist politics is based on an idealized social order, but identity politics is based on an idealization of the self. It is rooted in narcissism, and in the tension that narcissism always implies between the self and what is not the self. That condition is a feature of every mind in any social order. When it becomes politics, however, the tension between the self and what is not the self is established as a righteous struggle of the good self, and those with whom one identifies, against the bad not-self. But the not-self contains everything that imposes, or is even imagined to impose, on the free play and pleasure of the self; and that includes society and every institution within it, including the former Antioch College.

It gets worse, as one can see by applying a bit of Hegel. The self that we idealize is our own spontaneity. It has no fixed characteristics that can be used to identify it. Hence, it can only be defined in terms of its opposition to what is not itself and is felt to threaten its absolute spontaneity. That opposition is built into its very identity. In this way, identity politics becomes nihilism.

One may add that it chooses those with whom it identifies on the basis of similar antagonistic identities, such as the black students who were enlisted for their support by the white folks at Antioch College. They are to be unconditionally loved in their antagonism and, more importantly, valued for it. They are to be loved, that is to say, not despite their hatred, but because of it. That tells one what one needs to know about political correctness.

The black students, on this view, were there as part of a rebellion against constraint, form, and social order—indeed against the external world itself. The purpose they were subserving was their own, but it was not just their own. Rather, they were doing the job that those who had brought them in could not bring themselves to do alone.

The logic of identity politics is what led to this outcome; it was not simply an outgrowth of the local circumstances. For an institution to adopt these politics puts it in the position of defining itself against itself, and doing so in the full flower of self-righteous verve. When this happens, it becomes a kindness to refer to the institution’s response as ambivalence. In this case, Antioch’s motive toward self-preservation had become vestigial and inertial; its faith in itself experienced as bad faith.

Yet bad faith is still faith. The paradox of this kind of nihilism is that it requires the continued existence of what it is against. That is the only thing that gives it purpose and direction. It is parasitically dependent on the host it abuses.

This shows a deeper level to the ambivalence of Antioch’s officials. At this level, the opposites were brought together by the strike itself. Within the context of the strike, they were both attacking Antioch and maintaining Antioch, even if only as the place that was being struck. That is why they did not end the strike, which they could have done at any time. They came fully alive in the strike; they loved it.

What we can see from this is that the strike and the series of decisions leading to it were not just a means of bringing about a transformed Antioch; they were the transformed Antioch. Antioch had redefined itself to be against itself. Nihilism, it appears, can take an institutional form.

At any rate, the dangers of identity politics are revealed in its nihilism. What is to be feared is that slowly or quickly, through whatever modalities are current—whether they be the destruction of the study of literature through its reduction to a simple-minded morality play or the emasculation of science for being unfriendly toward women or whatever else is hot—identity politics presses for the destruction of form wherever it takes place.24

Anyone can do the math. Antioch, an early venue for identity politics and its attendant political correctness, perhaps because of its marginality, was simply the first to die from it. But with any parasite, there is always the danger that it will destroy the host.

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