What Happened to Antioch?

Antioch is no more. The venerable college is closing its doors this fall. Antioch University – which has other operations – will continue, but its flagship college is finished.

Its namesake, the ancient city in Turkey, had its ups and downs too, after it was founded by one of Alexander the Great’s generals. Earthquakes, invasions, rebellions. The usual stuff. At one point Antioch was the world’s third-largest city, behind Rome and Alexandria, perhaps topping 600,000 people. But it was down to 200,000 by the fourth century AD.

The devoutly Christian founders of Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, however, were no doubt less moved by the exceptional regard that Roman Emperors had for the strategic site than they were by the city’s key role in the book of Acts. Barnabas and Paul begin (Acts 11) their proselytizing there; Paul preaches in the synagogue; but Antioch also becomes the first city in which the followers of Jesus reach out to the gentiles, and the first place the followers were called Christians. Antioch is also the base for Paul’s subsequent missionary voyages.

When Judge William Mills, the Rev. Derostus F. Ladley, the Rev. Henry Whitney Bellows, Elder J. McKee and other Unitarians and members of the liberal denomination that called itself simply “the Christian Church” founded a new college in 1852, they chose the name for their enterprise audaciously. Calling it Antioch College enunciated an emphatically outward-looking Christian mission and a “we’re-going-to-change-the-world” attitude. They asked Horace Mann to be the College’s first president and it took many by surprise when the nation’s leading educational reformer accepted the offer. Mann plunged ahead with building a college that made it strongest stands in admitting women; eschewing “sectarian influence,” and promoting hygiene. The College’s first Catalogue also preached self-control:

The best knowledge is no match for bad habits. But true knowledge and virtuous habits will say to the demons of appetite and sensuality, Get ye behind me.

Antioch may have been broad-minded in defying some of the social taboos of the pre-Civil War era, but it freely imbibed the intoxicating beverage of scorn for the surrounding culture. Mann declared his purpose to be the creation of “the little Harvard of the West,” and pronounced the local people of Yellow Springs as “souls so small that a million sprinkled on a diamond would not make it dusty.”

Let’s note that as we wonder, “What’s happened to Antioch?”

I have been looking for what Antiochians of recent years think about the name of the College. The Antioch website, unusually for a college, has little to say about its history. In 2003, someone with the blogonym Yazz Cudd admirably declared “We owe it to Antioch’s founders to ‘keep the faith,” (with appropriate scare quotes) and he did a little research on the topic. He discovered that ancient Antioch “really was a shining star of civilization… amazingly free from social and political oppression.” According to Yazz, the founders of Antioch College, being highly educated folk, knew that the city was renowned for “artistic expression,” and good architecture, “including basilicas, baths, and libraries of intricate and astonishing complexity and loveliness.” Not to mention “variegated stonework employing brightly colored patterns and mosaics.”

Better still, “Everyone, regardless of background and identity, was welcomed to ancient Antioch. Differences among people and ideas were regarded as valuable, sources of new ideas and methods to be added to Antioch’s constantly changing cultural and political life.”
Yazz continues for a while in this vein, noting perfunctorily near the end of his piece that Antioch is also remembered because St. Paul had gone there. Why? It seems Paul knew that Antioch was a place where “expression of all ideas and points of view were tolerated and welcomed.”

So as Yazz sees it, Judge Mills, Rev. Ladley, et al. called their new college “Antioch,” because the name evoked tolerance, progressive politics, inclusion, diversity, great bathhouses, and cool mosaics. “Differences” were valued because they were intrinsically valuable, and constant change for the sake of change was the cardinal virtue. I was going to say that I’d wager a copy of my intricate and astonishingly complex book, A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now (Encounter Books), that Antioch’s founders weren’t thinking anything of the kind. But I’d be taking advantage of poor Yazz. The Antioch College Catalogue of 1854 states plainly what those founders were thinking:

The leading minds under whose auspices and by whose patronage Antioch College was founded, long ago called themselves “Christians,” not invidiously, but devoutly, and in honor of the author and finisher of their faith: and they have now selected a name by which to designate their institution at once scriptural and commemorative because “the disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.”

Perhaps one way of answering, “What happened to Antioch?” would be to observe that the river of broad-mindedness in the early 1850s has grown wider and still wider over the generations until it has emptied into the bay of moral and intellectual obliviousness.

I don’t want to make Yazz stand by himself as the epitome of latter-day Antioch College, though in general I’d put more stock in an articulate student than I would a college’s official flaks. The Antioch Record, a student newspaper, offers another glimpse of how students at “The Harvard of the West” see the challenges of their day. In “Gender Identity Disorder Gender Queerness Antioch,” Melissa Petro wrote in 2001:

Drag queen, MTF, sissy boy, gender outlaw, boy chick. Self-identification at Antioch, like the terms used to describe such identities, mean different things to different people. Both personal and political, non-binary gender expression is an issue of importance to any Antioch community member seeking to dismantle the institution of heterosexism.

Ho hum. The gender deconstructionists have been vaunting their queerness on college campuses coast to coast since, well, the days when Boy George was still within crooning distance of boyhood. The problem for the look-at-how-daringly-outrageous-we-are folks at Antioch is that they are passe. Students can be just as outrageous at Princeton or Purdue – and to a bigger audience. Who needs to go to southwest Ohio to make an earth-shaking political or artistic statement against heterosexism?

Such vapidities, however, do make Antioch sound – I’m sorry to say – provincial. I see that Henry Wickham, Jr. makes a similar point over at The American Thinker: “The Bohemianism at Antioch was always a little too self-conscious and self-congratulatory, and the radicalism conventional and, dare I say, boring.

While Yazz can’t get his mind around a simple and lucid Christian reference, Melissa paints a picture of a campus lost in atomized sexual confusion. She quotes a freshman, Joel Reardon, “There doesn’t really seem to be a normative gender [at Antioch]. People don’t enforce gender on campus and I think that’s really good.” What’s good for Joel, however, seems to have limited appeal to students in general. Tulisse A. Murdoch, the chancellor of Antioch University of which Antioch College is part, explained that the College is closing next year because of too few students. Only 125 freshmen signed up for fall 2007, and the total fall enrollment was projected to be 309. With a 160 full-time faculty members, that means a faculty to student ratio of almost 1:2.

So a plain and simple answer to “What happened to Antioch?” is that the college is no longer financially viable. The administrators admit that Antioch’s $36.2 million endowment cannot cover the shortfalls. We live, however, in a nation where over 16 million students attend college and in which many colleges that have pretensions to academic seriousness have long waiting lists. In this environment, colleges and universities can get away with offering programs of tic-tac-toe levels of triviality; and they charge tuitions equivalent to buying a new Prius twice a year – with no trade-in.

In other words, for a college to go under, it is not enough for it to be intellectually bogus; it has to take its misfeasance to a spectacular level. It has to get parents, in effect, to what might be called the “anyplace-but-Antioch” moment; and it has to persuade a fair number of otherwise curious students, “Maybe I’ll enlist instead. How bad can Baghdad be?”

In recent years, Antioch twice broke through the complacency with which Americans usually regard campus antics. First, back in 1991, Womyn of Antioch began to campaign for rules that would “challenge the culture of sexual violence within Antioch.” Was there such a culture? No matter. In 1993, the Womyn prevailed and the College first adopted a ten-page Sexual Offense Policy that carried the idea of “consensual” past any sane limits. It stipulated that “the person who initiates sexual contact/conduct is responsible for getting the verbal consent of the other individual(s) involved.” Let’s pause. Other individuals? So Antioch was making sure that menage-a-trois and still higher-order orgies include “verbal consent.” The consent getting, according to Antioch rules, continues through the encounter “with each new level of physical and/or sexual contact/conduct.”

Antioch was roundly mocked for its policy, but the college of Horace Mann and Derostus F. Ladley – the college that from the outset elevated good hygiene above good thinking – was not about to back down. The policy still exists, approved in its current form in 2005.

I would submit that a large number of people who know nothing else about Antioch know about its Sexual Offense Policy. And they now that it more or less prohibits ordinary heterosexual interactions between men and women by subjecting everything – even handholding and a goodnight kiss – to an artificial controls. Maybe that appeals to some exceptionally insecure students. 309 of them to be exact. But it isn’t exactly what most students want out of their college experience.

The other event that riveted Antioch in the public mind was the May 2000 commencement speech by Mumia Abu-Jamal, the convicted cop-killer then on death row. December 9, 1981, Abu-Jamal shot Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner five times at close range. He left cartridges and witnesses at the scene, and walked away with one of Officer Faulkner’s bullets in his own body. It was a cold-blooded killing; the case was airtight; and he was convicted in 1982. Of course, since then, Mumia has Gatsby-like, reinvented himself. He has become a self-made victim of American injustice and a popular cause on the loony left.

Antioch’s decision to have him as its audiotaped commencement speaker clearly said a lot more about Antioch than it did about Mumia. What Mumia himself said on the occasion is here: It is a kind of roll call of black nationalists from W.E.B. Dubois to Angela Davis – eminently forgettable except for the circumstance. One supposes that the Faulkner family and the sons and daughters of Philadelphia police officers have not been filling the intervening years with applications to Antioch. But there is something more here. In inviting Mumia to speak at its 2000 Commencement, Antioch edged over the line from the usual silliness of the campus left to something like real contempt for America. And Americans haven’t forgotten.

Maybe the seed of this contempt was always there. Horace Mann’s sneering at the people of Yellow Springs as “souls so small that a million sprinkled on a diamond would not make it dusty,” comes back to mind. Antioch’s second best-known president was a flood-control engineer named Arthur Morgan, who imposed a first-of-its-kind “cooperative work program” at Antioch in the 1920s. Morgan took the presidency because, as he told his wife, the College was “. . . near dead, so we could do what we want with it.” When things didn’t go entirely his way, he left to become chairman (1933) of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Something about Antioch seems to summon high-minded arrogance. The Antioch motto captures that perfectly. Mann told the graduating class of 1859, “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.” Couple that quality with supercilious edicts about good sexual hygiene and add in Leftist banality, and you have Antioch.

I have conservative friends who, on hearing the news of Antioch’s demise, said “Good riddance!” That doesn’t seem to me quite right. Antioch had clearly lost its way and its closing does represent a judgment by Americans as a whole who were no longer willing to risk their children’s education in such a venture. But Antioch once upon a time was a serious place. The catalogue of 1854 lays out admissions standards tougher than any American college or university today and a rigorous four-year curriculum requiring sciences, mathematics, Latin, Greek, French, and German, art, literature, engineering, and more. Today, we would call this elitist and damn it as impractical even if it were possible. But Antioch’s founders opened their college to women and, though there was internal resistance, the College accepted black students as well.

Antioch was, in its time, a worthy experiment and it taught lessons that American higher education eventually absorbed. But today no college can make a niche for itself as a rambunctious outsider by moving to the cultural left. It is standing room only over there, and if you try to push further, there is nothing but abyss. The real room for experiment these days is in rediscovering the traditional curriculum. Colleges that awaken to the attractions of academic rigor, intellectual order, and the abiding principles of free inquiry have a promising future. Farewell, Antioch.


  • Peter Wood

    Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars and author of “1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project.”

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2 thoughts on “What Happened to Antioch?

  1. Dear Mr. Wood,
    A more level headed, if not slightly cynical, account of the historical problems at Antioch, I have not seen. The single down to earth suggestion for restoring the college is a little short on vision, but at least it has the virtue of being common sense- a quality that is not easily found at Antioch today.
    You miss the point a little though in focusing upon one of its lesser students, when there are more than a few graduates of the school who have written eloquently and informatively about the traditions of the college. And one does not need to mention great accomplishments of its small pool of graduates- such as the recent Nobel prize in medicine. Quite obviously to everyone there was a time when Antioch College was a very different place.
    The interesting part about Morgan is that he was really a visionary, but a feet on the ground one. And it is well known that he had considerable power to mold the college to his own fashion, that lesser people have not been able to sustain. Despite its horrendous management, it would be premature to call the college’s demise. However, I would submit that its rebirth would require a set of visionary deans, who would essentially give the place the structure you speak about, but would do so with creativity and respect for the college’s more interesting past.
    No one mentions the transcendentalist past of the college, (The Peabody’s influence on Horace Mann, for example.) the Unitarian roots of the college,the influence of the Quakers upon Morgan, or its once strong interest in creative vision of a community over politics.
    There was a powerful, positive core at the center of Mann’s and Morgan’s quest, an egalitarian, can do spirit that did not set the college up as the big social critic of the world, but a place where people were trained to do good works with humility.
    This social evangelism was always a part of what came to be known as the Antioch Spirit. It was a very fragile ethos that has been smothered, but because it found its expression in action, and the cooperative aspect of it was very powerful. You might say it had similarities to Jesuit training on a secular level- and that it became for a short time, focused upon solving problems of economic and social inequality.
    Of course when one says the word sprit, it implies a higher power than the self. The denial of the that spirit in many modern day Antiochians is the key to the problem. It is easy to attack social foibles of its latest generation- but even they know how small their world has become when compared with the college’s past.
    One should not end such an interesting chapter of higher education so dismissively. Just because the flaws of Antioch old and new have been magnified by its current stewards, doesn’t mean the values of the college could not be rediscovered.
    They had a chance with their last president who understood that the Antioch ideal was about service to others, and a dedication to making the world better- without the big ego trip or forced radical ideology. There was a brief moment upon his taking office that many who sighed over the college found solace- but the bitter division between university and college rages on regardless of whom they find.
    People who deny the greater parts of the college history,are not merely insensitive to what has been lost, but perhaps do not know how large this little college’s footprint was at one time.
    For in the end of the day, if one looks really closely at the true, hidden, history of Antioch College, one will see a complex mosaic of values that stretches from its original evangelistic religious intent, to its struggle to define secular humanism, to a visionary democratic ideal that failed, to radical ideology that started interestingly, and that has become a bland parody of itself. It sounds suspiciously like a social history of the United States.
    Still, if an Arthur Morgan type stepped forward with a giant check book, the college could be recovered, and it should be- precisely for the reasons its detractors think it should be closed, and not because of what the current stewards have done to it. It will require someone who truly has lived the mission of the college, and not someone who has merely read about such journeys.
    The Antioch spirit that made the college an interesting place was about more than getting a college education, it was about seeing the world anew, and understanding that in serving others we discover the value of our lives. It was iconoclastic, but had humility, intelligent, but highly sensitive.
    Antioch College represented something that is larger than what is left or right now, but its history and value, despite its recent set backs, is worth preserving. The pure ideals of people like Mann and Morgan are largely missing in a large cross section of contemporary America, so it should be no surprise that they no longer really exist on the campus of Antioch College.
    Richard Campbell

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