The op-ed page of the New York Times for Sunday, 17 June 2007, carried an article that was one of the best illustrations of the effects of philosophy that I have read in quite some time. By "philosophical," I mean what Lord Bolingbroke meant when he wrote in 17th century England, "History is philosophy teaching by example."
The op-ed was entitled "Where the Arts Were Too Liberal" and was written by Michael Goldfarb, who has worked extensively with National Public Radio. He writes from a decidedly modern liberal (Left) perspective but has retained more objectivity than most modern liberals. What he writes should be an exceptionally useful teaching example in objective university philosophy courses (which eliminates most of them). Most university philosophy departments are strongly akin to the philosophy that killed Antioch College, the subject of this op-ed.
Mr. Goldfarb attended Antioch and takes its demise personally. He begins, "THIS is an obituary for a great American institution whose death was announced this week. After 155 years, Antioch College is closing. Established in 1852 in Yellow Springs, Ohio, by the kind of free-thinking Christian group found only in the United States, Antioch College was egalitarian in the best tradition of American liberalism. The college’s motto, not in Latin or Greek but plain English, was coined by Horace Mann, its first president: 'Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.'”
Before going further, we must acknowledge just how revealing that introduction is. Antioch College was "egalitarian in the best tradition of American liberalism." Thinking he is saying something good about the college and its philosophy, the author states a few sentences later, "Later Antioch would incorporate pragmatism, that most native of American philosophies, into its curriculum, balancing a student’s experience of learning inside the ivory tower with regular jobs off campus in the “real” world."
"Egalitarian" is not a positive term, except to modern liberals. It has been the mantra of the "equal outcomes" (thus dumb-'em-down) crowd in education and "equal sharing of wealth" by the social justice crowd. It is term of true, literal "democracy," where mob rules. By contrast, its opposite is the upholding of the Rights of Man. The differences give the results: The French Revolution versus the American Revolution.
Then, when you throw in one of the most evil of founders of "modern education," proto-socialist, altruist, and hyperreligionist Horace Mann, you can see that Antioch College was sent on a collision course with reality, and reality won out. Mann spent his last 14 years at Antioch. Furthermore, Antioch was a leader in the Hegelianistic progressive education espoused by John Dewey.
Antioch's pragmatism set itself up for suicide. Pragmatism is the first uniquely American philosophy in American history. (Objectivism is the second, but it is a 20th century philosophy).
Pragmatism is the ultimate philosophy for those who want to get away with almost anything. Pragmatism throws away objectivity about reality, truth, and ethics, for pure emotional indulgence. One of its famous principles states that truth is that which works. Never mind the unyielding nature of reality which must be obeyed to be commanded, pragmatism says, go try something ("why" does not matter), and if it gets you the results you want, then it is not only true, it is good. That is raw subjectivism, leaving emotions, not thoughts, in charge of the human mind, and erecting the facade that it is a "practical" philosophy--if one wants to promote destruction of self, others, and whatever, then in that sense it is "practical." It became THE ruling philosophy of American public education and American politics. Look at them, and you see the "practical" results of Pragmatism.
The op-ed discusses the decline of the college: "Yet it was in the high tide of liberal activism that the college lost its way. I know this firsthand, because I entered Antioch in the fall of 1968, just when the tide was nearing its peak. So much of the history of 1968 reflects an America in crisis, but if you were young and idealistic it was a time of unparalleled excitement. The 2,000 students at Antioch, living in a picture-pretty American village, provided a laboratory for various social experiments of the time."
Funny thing about ideas; they will progress under direct guidance and effort, or they will progress by default. Antioch did both, and the ideas of Kant, Hegel, and Dewey sprouted in the fertile soil of this Ohio institution. Like all ideas, they progressed almost unnoticed first for years, then for decades. Nevertheless, during the intervening years, they moved like cancer cells into the organism that was Antioch College. By the time anyone could have noticed, if those at Antioch had that capability, it was too late.
The nihilism of the 1960s was the crowning achievement of the anti-Enlightenment ideas and ideals of Kant, Schopenhauer, Hegel, Marx, and their American Leftist descendents. Here is what that crowning achievement looked like:
"With a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, the college increased African-American enrollment to 25 percent in 1968, from virtually nil in previous years. The new students were recruited from the inner city. At around the same time, Antioch created coeducational residence halls, with no adult supervision. Sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll became the rule, as you might imagine, and there was enormous peer pressure to be involved in all of them. No member of the faculty or administration, and certainly none of the students, could guess what these sudden changes would mean. They were simply embraced in the spirit of the time.
"I moved into this sociological petri dish from a well-to-do suburb. Within my first week I twice had guns drawn on me, once in fun and once in a state of drunken [sic] real by a couple of ex-cons whom one of my classmates, in the interest of breaking down class barriers, had invited to live with her.
"Each semester, the college seemed to create a new program. “We need to take education to the people” became a mantra, and so satellite campuses began to sprout around the country. Something called Antioch University was created, and every faculty member whose marriage was going bad or who simply couldn’t hack living in a village of 3,000 people and longed for the city came up with a proposal to start a new campus.
"For the increasingly vocal radical members of the community, change wasn’t going far enough or fast enough. They wanted revolution, but out there in the middle of the cornfields the only “bourgeois” thing to fight was Antioch College itself. The let’s-try-anything, free-thinking society of 1968 evolved into a catastrophic blend of legitimate paranoia (Nixon did keep enemies lists, and the F.B.I. did infiltrate campuses) and postadolescent melodrama. In 1973, a strike trashed the campus and effectively destroyed Antioch’s spirit of community. The next year, student enrollment was down by half.
(As the "ideas" of the 1960s progressed across the decades, they tended to focus) "...on gender politics, and it culminated in the notorious sexual offense prevention policy. Enacted in 1993, the policy dictated that a person needed express permission for each stage in seduction. ('May I touch your breast?' 'May I remove your bra?' And so on.) In two decades students went from being practitioners of free love to prisoners of gender. Antioch became like one of those Essene communities in the Judean desert in the first century after Christ that, convinced of their own purity, died out while waiting for a golden age that never came."
Who stood up for reason? There were no advocates of reason at Antioch. The best they could marshall was this: "'It was liberalism gone mad,' a former professor, Hannah Goldberg, once told me, and she was right. The college seemed to forget the pragmatism that had been a key to its ethos, and tried blindly to extend its mission beyond education to social reform. But there were too many new programs and too little cash reserve to deal with the inevitable growing pains." (Emphasis mine)
It was not "liberalism gone mad." It was modern liberalism made real, period. It was all those anti-Enlightenment chickens coming home to roost. Not always do we have a living laboratory demonstrating the logical consequences of our ideas or those of others. Antioch became a superb laboratory that demonstrated the exact meaning of the ideas it had been espousing since its inception. This was not pragmatism forgotten. No, this was pragmatism fully developed. This was the ethos of pragmatism. And, these ideas did not fail because there were too few dollars; they failed because they were Antioch's beloved ideas flowering fully into logical consequences. They failed because irrationality always fails; it is only a matter of when it fails, not whether it will fail.
The author also did not realize that from the moment of the birth of Horace Mann's utopian dream, along with Hegel's and Dewey's, education had been drafted into the service of social reform. Education was the tool by which social reform would be achieved. Antioch had always been about social reform through pragmatism; it was not embarking on something new.
All the modern liberal mentalities awaited "a golden age that never came." The age came, not the way they wanted but in the only way that reality permitted. It was not "golden" because its ideas and ideals were so ungolden.
"Most of the talented faculty members began to leave for other institutions, and the few who were dedicated to rebuilding the Yellow Springs campus found themselves increasingly isolated. The college that gave the Antioch University system its name had become just another profit center in a larger enterprise and not even the most important one at that.
"Antioch College became a rump where the most illiberal trends in education became entrenched. Since it is always easier to impose a conformist ethos on a small group than a large one, as the student body dwindled, free expression and freedom of thought were crushed under the weight of ultraliberal orthodoxy. By the 1990s the breadth of challenging ideas a student might encounter at Antioch had narrowed, and the college became a place not for education, but for indoctrination. Everyone was on the same page, a little to the left of The Nation in worldview."
As I read this op-ed, I thought that it was almost like a page out of Ayn Rand's novel, Atlas Shrugged and her essays about the New Left and the "student rebellion" and its causes of the 1960s from her collection Return of the Primitive (published initially as The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution).
One of the saddest parts of this op-ed is that the author, who is obviously very intelligent and seems a real cut above the standard issue modern liberal, is not integrating what he is telling us. He lapses into standard modern liberal cliches about how the school had become "just another profit center," as though capitalism had anything to do with the irrational and illiberal tripe that infected, infested, and destroyed Antioch.
He does see, however, that modern liberalism is anything but liberal, in the classical liberal sense. Modern liberalism has become another route to totalitarianism and collectivism, of the communist and socialist varieties, and these are entirely illiberal entities. Liberals, of course, seek "indoctrination" because they cannot sell their ideas to anyone who retains the slightest independence of mind. The susceptible may buy into some of these ideas, for a while, but few will be able to accept the entire modern liberal package. While theocracy is the ideal of the modern conservative, communism is still the ideal of the modern liberal.
The author closes with these statements, among others: "I grieve for Antioch the way I grieve for the hope of 1968 washed away in a tide of self-inflated rhetoric, self-righteousness and self-indulgence. The ideals of social justice and economic fairness we embraced then are still right and deeply American. The discipline to turn those ideals into realities was what Antioch, its community and the generation it led was lacking. I fear it still is." His ideals of "social justice" and "economic fairness" were, and are, chips off the old Marxist block. They are the taking from some by force or threat of force to give to others who did not earn any of the confiscated property they receive. What is fair about this?
Since when did theft become fair? Yet, these are the ideals of 19th century German philosophy which came wholesale to newly formed Antioch College. Like an unseen nidus of virulent bacteria, these ideas spread until they destroyed the host. The ideals of Counter-Enlightenment Germany became the death sentence for Antioch College once they reached full bloom.
Our take-home lesson is to acknowledge that these same ideas have penetrated American culture to the point of bringing it to the weakened state it is in today. Religious conservatives fight modern liberals for dominion over America. Neither position has the slightest valid claim to reason. If either side wins, we all lose.
If we are to survive, we must return to reason, and we have not a moment to lose.