When the arts were liberal enough

By Jeanne Kay

What went wrong with Antioch? Autopsies and Obituaries have multiplied in the Media in the last two months. In order to see who was behind one of the most debated of these opinion pieces, The Record went to a London pub to meet Michael Goldfarb, author of the New York Times Op/Ed “Where the arts were too liberal”

You went to Antioch at the end of the 1960s, how would you describe your experience living what is often referred to as the college’s “golden years”?
It was a very interesting time to be there. It was challenging because the country itself was going through tremendous changes and the college was a place that was much attuned to that. Other institutions of higher learning have had other responses to the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, movements of personal freedom, etc… But Antioch was like a diaphragm– it vibrated with the time. And you could go anywhere in America, to any hip community, and if you were from Antioch there’d be people you could contact, you’d have a place to crash; it was an extended community. It was quite remarkable.

What role did Antioch play in making the person you are now?
The main thing is that it’s made me completely skeptical–in a good way. I have to test everything against my own experience– which doesn’t necessarily make me an easy person to employ– but it makes me a really good journalist. I have to thank Antioch for that: my ability to take whatever life throws at me is pretty good. Because by the time I was at the end of my second year, I’d lived in three different cities, I had had four apartments… These are life experiences that Antioch gives you.
It also gives you the ability to accept that there’s bullshit you have to deal with. And I went to AEA in England, and here I am now, living in England! It opened that door for me.

What has been your relationship with Antioch since you graduated? Have you been an active alumnus, have you often visited?
No. I’ve been pretty typical for an alumnus from my time. I entered in 1968, so my class should’ve been 1973–the year of the strike. I could smell that strike coming so I got out in four years. To be completely honest I haven’t been a good alumnus. I’ve made very small contributions over the years when work has been going well. In terms of alumni organizations, there was a group of people, a few years ago, that was trying to set aside money to let the college have its own board of governance, and I was part of that group. But most of my visits have been in a professional capacity.

What was your reaction when you heard the BOT’s decision to close down Antioch?
I wasn’t surprised. I gave the Commencement speech in 1999 and we had about 100 students graduating then. I think they were giving Associate Degrees just to have enough people. So no, I was not surprised, but I was profoundly saddened, because I still think that the Antioch that I went to was a valuable institution in American Education.

So you think that the Antioch you went to was profoundly different from today’s Antioch?
Yes: numbers, the scope of the faculty, the scope of what was being offered… It really was different. When I went there, it was broadly liberal but there was a fairly wide range of opinions among students and faculty members. When I returned I saw that that wide range of points of view bumping up against each other had been reduced and there seemed to be a very narrow way of looking at the world.

Do you believe, as your Op/Ed seemed to imply, that Antioch’s current situation is linked to campus culture?
There are complicated reasons, but what I was saying in the Op/Ed was that we ourselves carry a heavy burden of guilt for the closing of this institution–those of us that didn’t share the political opinions of the people who organized the strike. It was the faculty who had the greatest stake in the health of the institution, and they abandoned their responsibility. We let the bullies take over. What you had was a lot of kids wanting to make revolution, and they destroyed the campus and the community. I regret that this happened and that we didn’t work harder to make sure that it didn’t.

You believe that Antioch was never the same after that Strike?
Most people will tell you that. The reason why the college ultimately is closed is because of this idiotic University. Money that might have kept Antioch open was not available because it was paying for other university campuses, and the university was diverting personal resources as well

There has been a lot of SOPP-bashing in the press these days; you too seem to disagree with the policy…
I know that America has changed a lot, but by and large this detailed thing seems to work against having the safest teenage lust. It seems to me like a terrible abdication of personal responsibility. I was on campus when the story broke out and I took a few students for breakfast at the Sunrise; they were very afraid, especially females. Afraid of what? You’re in the middle of this beautiful little town, near the Glen! How many sex offenders are there to be afraid of? This is all part of a general thing in America–people are made afraid. At Antioch you have to remain skeptical, and tell yourself « what does my experience tell me? my experience tells me that there’s nothing to be afraid of.» And as to sex, 18 and 19 year olds living together in dormitories…there’s going to be sexual vibes. You don’t want it, then say no! And if you don’t get that respected then talk to somebody. But going through the trouble of getting verbal permission for this and for that struck me as being an absurd legislation about a very deep form of human behavior. Social pressure I understand; it’s the oppression of women through sex that I think one of the most absurd wrong turnings in the history of politics. Sex is sex. It’s a biological thing. I find absurd to build a policy on the notion that there’s some kind of sexual oppression in the act itself.
What was your motivation for writing your New York Times Op/Ed about Antioch?
I knew that Antioch shutting down would be of interest for commentary because of what Antioch had been at one point. I wanted to do a kind of obituary; I wanted to pay tribute to the pragmatic liberalism that was at the core of the history of the college. I wanted to reclaim it for America.

What do you think about the efforts to save Antioch, do you hope that Antioch will remain open?
Not at any cost. The necessary steps need to be taken to cut free of the University, to rebuild the college and widen the college’s intellectual reach. You should be able to go to that College, with 2000 people, and a wide range of things to learn. If it closes down for a few years, benefactors are found, a proper new perspective for what an institution should be is reached and the governance of Antioch University is made sane…then go for it.

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