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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

Antioch against Itself Transformation of the Meaning of Antioch College

When the closure of my alma mater Antioch College was announced on June 12, 2007, there was plenty of schaedenfreude to go around (e.g. Will, 2007), but there was considerable sadness as well. Characteristic was Leon Botstein, the distinguished president of Bard College. Speaking from Jerusalem, where he was music director for the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, Botstein called the death'a tragedy that should not have happened' (Jaschik, Scott. Leon Botstein on the 'Tragedy' of Antioch, Inside Higher Education, August 2, 2007). Antioch College is one of the historic, great, independent colleges in American history. It was the founding college of the American progressive movement. 'It was a strong, important place.And you know it had distinguished alumni, among them Stephen Jay Gould, and it should never have closed. Yet, for some, it had died a long time ago. Everett K. Wilson (1985), a member of the Antioch faculty until 1980, declared in 1985 that Antioch was already dead. Of course, he wasn't speaking literally I use the word, death, metaphorically. The organization persists in attenuated form. But it is such a stranger to its past that it might well be seen as a different organization, displacing its predecessor. It persists only tenuously, reduced in size, resources, and program, without a philosophy of education or a distinctive purpose that would confer identity. (p.260) Still, he didn't hold out much hope that it would survive in any form and it turned out he was right. Wilson came to his judgment of the College's death in around 1979, when the Board of Trustees of the University of which the College was part, announced that the pay for all of its employees would be suspended, a condition that lasted for five months. That suspension was itself the consequence of changes beginning in 1964, the year of my graduation, actually, which reached a culmination in a costly six-week strike in 1973, from which the College never really recovered. In the end, even the attenuated Antioch did not last. Whatever it was, it was not viable and could exist only through subventions from the university. When the University finally pulled the plug, that was that. Yet, whatever it was, it was vibrant. Faculty and students at the school, in alliance with a revived and committed group of alumni, put up a fight for salvation that gained considerable national attention (Cohen, 2008). That fight was lost, but it is not possible to deny that something was very much alive. But if it was not Antioch College, what was it? Wilson's designation of it as an 'attenuated form' a stranger to its past... a different organization, displacing its predecessor... without a philosophy of education or a distinctive purpose that would confer identity,' tells us what it was not, but conveys no positive information. We lose nothing if we simply say that Antioch changed; specifically, the meaning of Antioch changed. Insofar as an organization is defined by its meaning, the Antioch that Wilson knew died indeed, but the organization that replaced it had a vitality of its own; and along with that a philosophy of education and a distinct purpose. Unviable it might have been, but as Cohen (2008) put it, it certainly did not go gently. Wilson did not recognize it, but that was for a reason. Antioch was in the process of redefining itself to be, in fundamental ways, the opposite of what it had been before, and through which Wilson defined what the purpose and philosophy of a college would be. There is a sense in which Antioch redefined itself to be against what it previously meant. My purpose in this essay is to elaborate that sense. I want to consider this transformation in meaning from within a theoretical approach I have been developing based on a psychoanalytic theory that has focused on the psychodynamics of political correctness.. I will briefly introduce this perspective here, and then show how it has played out in the case of the transformation of Antioch College.